Darth Socrates: You don’t know the power of Philosophy

Darth Socrates: You don’t know the power of Philosophy

The fight between psychology and philosophy is full of sound and fury.
Public Domain PIc

Philosophy fads are not considered fads by philosophers. “Finally a path to the truth!”—that’s how philosophers consider philosophy fads. Logical empiricism (early 20th century) is the Platonic ideal of a philosophy fad: crucially important, apparently truth revealing, and finally solving all philosophical problems with one blow, but ultimately a complete failure. There have been many others—other 20th century examples include ordinary language philosophy, post-modernism, and deconstructionism.

Why are fads considered so very very important to philosophers? Why are they considered: “Finally, a path to the truth!” rather than something like skinny jeans or hair buns on guys or hula hoops? Because of a terrible, obvious fact: philosophy makes no progress. Philosophy wrestles now with the same problems it has wrestled with since the first human or possibly proto-human said, “But how do we know we’ll find water there?” and someone replied, “How do we know anything?” Philosophers just wander around in a vast, strange land that is apparently truthless, or if there are truths, they are unreachable. Yet, philosophers are human too (so far), so they hate not having the truth or something resembling the truth. So when a new path opens up in the strange land of philosophy, everyone charges down it. “Finally, a new path to the truth. And this time this path is real it won’t be a dead end like the others.” Hope springs eternal.

What is the lastest path everyone is charging down? Experimental philosophy. That’s right: the words “experimental” and “philosophy” occur together. Here’s a definition of experimental philosophy from Wikipedia:

“Experimental philosophy is an emerging field of philosophical inquiry that makes use of empirical data—often gathered through surveys which probe the intuitions of ordinary people—in order to inform research on philosophical questions. This use of empirical data is widely seen as opposed to a philosophical methodology that relies mainly on a priori justification, sometimes called “armchair” philosophy, by experimental philosophers. Experimental philosophy initially began by focusing on philosophical questions related to intentional action, the putative conflict between free will and determinism, and causal vs. descriptive theories of linguistic reference. However, experimental philosophy has continued to expand to new areas of research.” (See here, here, here, and here.)

If we can’t solve the problems, perhaps we can get the psychologists to tell us why the problems aren’t real in the first place. Then the fact that we can’t solve them is not embarrassing at all. In fact, it shows how competent we philosophers really are: no fake problem has a solution, at least not a real solution—that’s why we haven’t been able to solve the problems. Perhaps some of the philosophy problems are real, but only experimental philosophy will reveal that, and it will also open up new avenues of research that will finally lead us to the truth.

Philosophy doesn’t make any progress. That’s true. But that’s because the problems are so profound. And they are profound because all philosophy problems are at least partly about consciousness, and consciousness is both intractable and essential (see Sisyphus’s Boulder: Consciousness and the Limits of the Knowable (I can supply a copy upon request); the introduction to SB is accessible here.) Because of the nature of philosophy, it resists any attempt to simplify its problems and to experimentally dismiss them or demote them.

But don’t trust me; let’s look at a case in point.

In 2015, John Turri published “Skeptical Appeal: The Source-Content Bias” in the journal Cognitive Science (39, 2015, 307-324). This is an exciting paper, and I encourage the reader to examine it closely. In this paper, Turri argues that the problem of skepticism is not real; it is, rather, an artifact of our psychology. Skepticism is the philosophical claim that we know nothing. It is, as are many philosophical theses, radical and hard to take seriously in our day-to-day lives. But skepticism thrives in philosophical environments and has for thousands of years. Turri wants to understand why? The fact that skepticism exists only in philosophical environments and not in our quotidian lives is prime facie evidence, that something not real is afoot, and with this insight, Turri attacks the problem of skepticism, hoping to defeat it once and for all.

Turri begins with the classical argument schema for skepticism. First, a specific version:

If we know that we are reading this blog posted by a human named Dietrich then we know that we are not in the Matrix.

But we don’t know we are not in the Matrix.

Therefore, we don’t know we are reading this blog posted by Dietrich.

The schema version is:

1.  If we know <something ordinary and obvious> then we know that <some skepticism-inducing claim is not true (e.g., we are not in the Matrix)>.

2.  But we never know <some skepticism-inducing claim is not true>.

3.  Therefore, we don’t know <something ordinary and obvious>.

Clearly, the schema version can be applied to our most secure knowledge, and can cause us to doubt it. And this is skepticism.

Now for Turri’s attack on skepticism. The key is Turri’s experimentally supported claim that humans naturally or easily doubt or distrust negative inferences (that something is not the case) as well as negative inferential beliefs (inferences to a belief that something is not the case). Put another way, we are biased against negative inferential beliefs—we harbor an evaluative bias against such beliefs. (Turri nicely discusses all the necessary details of his experiments in his paper.)

Note that step 1 is a negative inference and step 2 is a negative inferential belief, and the conclusion, step 3, is a completed negative inference to the conclusion (belief) that we don’t know something quite ordinary and seemingly known.

Turri concludes: “classic skeptical arguments owe a good deal of their potency to this evaluative bias against negative inferential beliefs…” (p. 320).

So skepticism is dealt a serious blow. It is not the serious threat many philosophers think it is, rather it is merely an artifact of our human psychology, which is distrustful of negative inferences and negative inferential beliefs.

But philosophy is hard to sideline, to put the matter mildly.

Note that Turri is skeptical of skepticism. So, he must use negative inferences himself. But these are the very inferences Turri points out are the ones we regard as dubious (or regard with suspicion). Turri’s experiments say that we should all be skeptical of skepticism. But now consider this version of his schema (see above):

A. If we know that Turri’s experiments are correct, then we know that skepticism is not true.

B. But we don’t know that skepticism is not true. (At best we know that there is evidence against skepticism—Turri’s experiments, for example. The experiments might provide evidence that skepticism is not true, but not proof—no scientific experiment provides certain proof, but certain proof is what knowledge requires.)

C. Therefore, we don’t know that Turri’s experiments are correct.

The relevant point of view, therefore, is one where we apply Turri’s results to his own paper. This point of view sees that ALL skeptical results are dubious (because of Turri’s paper), but also sees that Turri’s paper is a skeptical result. Therefore, by Turri’s own criteria, we should be skeptical of his results.

Skepticism, we now see, is here to stay. Philosophy, it seems, appears to be unconquerable. The world is a lot stranger than you think.