Academic Philosophy

Is Philosophy Unreliable?

Here’s a link to one of my favorite papers, “Scepticism about Philosophy,” published in Ratio. Here’s the abstract:

Suppose a person who is agnostic about most philosophical issues wishes to have true philosophical beliefs but equally wishes to avoid false philosophical beliefs. I argue that this truth-seeking, error-avoiding agnostic would not have good grounds for pursuing philosophy. Widespread disagreement shows that pursuing philosophy is not a reliable method of discovering true answers to philosophical questions. More likely than not, pursuing philosophy leads to false belief. Many attempts to rebut this sceptical argument fail.

In short: If you were agnostic about philosophical issues, you should conclude, in light of widespread disagreement, that studying philosophy is more likely to make you arrive at false rather than true philosophical beliefs. If you equally valued getting true beliefs and avoiding false beliefs, you would think philosophy is not worth doing.

Richard Yetter-Chappell has a thoughtful response here. He doesn’t quite object to the argument, but instead asks whether we should be worried about it. (In a longer but not published version of this paper, I say something similar.)

  • martinbrock

    What is a true philosophical belief?

    Natural Philosophy has Nature to constrain it. We make assumptions, infer conclusions and compare the conclusions to Nature. Nature always wins.

    Beyond Natural Philosophy, particularly in Politics and Ethics, we can still make assumptions and infer conclusions, but we have only subjective preferences for one conclusion or another. No one wins, or everyone wins, or maybe the guy with the biggest gun wins. Take your pick.

    In my way of thinking, a libertarian opts for everyone. If we agree sufficiently on conclusions, we interact; otherwise, we leave one another alone.

    • “Snow is white” is true just in case snow is white.
      “The mind is an immaterial substance” is true just in case the mind is an immaterial substance.

      • martinbrock

        The first is an essentially scientific proposition. If neither a material mind nor an immaterial mind is an empirically falsifiable proposition, belief in the second proposition can only be matter of preference.

        “A man has a right exclusively to govern the fruits of his labor” is another sort of proposition.

        • Yes, but the standard of truth is the same for both. “A man has a right exclusively to govern the fruits of his labor” is true just in case a man has a right exclusively to govern the fruits of his labor. That’s all there is to truth.

          • martinbrock

            What you say about truth is true, but it’s not very interesting. When we debate Lockean propriety, we ordinarily debate whether it ought to be true rather than whether it is true. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or even a philosopher, to figure out that it often isn’t true.

          • The concept of truth isn’t very interesting. (Not being sarcastic. It’s just that most debates about truth aren’t about truth, but about something else.)

          • martinbrock

            Like now, we aren’t discussing truth. We’re discussing philosophy.

  • hgfalling

    The usefulness of studying philosophy is not that studying philosophy will cause one to arrive at “true” beliefs, but in providing a framework for making clear the way in which consistent philosophical belief systems are derived from axioms.

    • j r

      I agree with this. Philosophy, especially in the analytic tradition, is essentially taxonomy. A taxonomy of ideas is useful in the same way that a taxonomy of birds is useful to understanding birds. It will not, however, help you in deciding whether the jay or the wren is the superior bird.

  • I haven’t read the paper or the response. But here is my usual sort of response to this type of argument: why not run it for logic? The experts in the subject disagree about which arguments are valid. Principles that people unsophisticated in logic would never think to deny (such as modus ponens, or ‘if not-not-p then p,’ or even the law of non-contradiction) are rejected by different logicians for different reasons. Why not run it for physics? People who are not experts in the subject are taught the currently dominant theories as if they were true. But the experts disagree about whether these theories are true and what the most promising nascent replacement theories are. It is the same in every field of enquiry: the more you learn the more you realise you don’t know; the deeper you get, the more disagreement you find. Yet we know a lot more now about logic and physics than we did a few hundred years ago. The same is true in philosophy.

    • Perhaps, but both fundamental and non-fundamental disagree are more pervasive in philosophy than in the natural sciences or social sciences.

    • martinbrock

      In Physics, a theory is more or less consistent with observations than another theory. Physicists disagree over which theory ought to replace a currently dominant theory, but they generally agree that only a repeatable experiment can settle the disagreement.

  • famadeo

    I wonder what the author understands philosophy to be. When the abstract presents it as an ill-concieved persuit of correct or true answers, there’s clear sign of a belief that they can be obtained by some other means (otherwise, talking about true or correct answers would be meaningless). Already one engages in question-begging about what epistemological assumptions one is working with… and that’s as far as you go in your enterprise in debunking philosophy.

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