Post-hoc rationalization among philosophers

What are philosophers good at? Eric Schwitzgebel reports on the results of an experiment which suggests the answer is “not the things they’d like you to believe they’re good at”:

The simplest interpretation of our overall results, across three types of scenarios (Double Effect, Moral Luck, and Action-Omission), is that in cases like these skill in philosophy doesn’t manifest as skill in consistently applying explicitly endorsed abstract principles to reach stable judgments about hypothetical scenarios; rather, it manifests more as skill in choosing principles to rationalize, post-hoc, scenario judgments that are driven by the same types of factors that drive non-philosophers’ judgments.

You can click the link for the details of the experiment. Here, I just want to say that this fits with other observations that have been made about the nature of philosophy. It’s worth quoting a large section here of a paper I found via Andres Ruiz, titled “There Is No Progress in Philosophy”:

Philosophy does not even stumble forward. Philosophy does not move forward at all. It is the exactly the same today as it was 3000 years ago; indeed, as it was from the beginning. What it does do is stay current; philosophers confuse this with advancing, with making progress. Staying current is not moving forward any more than staying up on the latest fashions or music is movement toward greater social justice.

I know this claim of mine strikes philosophers as obviously false, crazy, and outrageous. I get two kinds looks. One kind is one of utter confusion, as if I’d just sincerely asserted “One plus one equals three.” The other is one of disgust as if I just sincerely asserted “Slavery is morally required.”

“Look,” you might say, in a spirit of trying to correct someone who thinks the moon is made of green cheese, “we all think slavery is immoral. In fact, we know it is. How is that not philosophical progress? How is that not progress in ethics which is branch of philosophy?”

I didn’t say society doesn’t progress. It does. We are now quite clear on the immorality of slavery. (More or less: though slavery is illegal in every country in the world, there are more slaves now than ever, and it is a billion dollar business). But philosophy didn’t discover slavery’s immorality. Philosopher’s weren’t leading the charge against slavery when it was openly and commonly practiced. What happened was that political leaders and social activists (who weren’t philosophers, but social activists) changed the way many thought about slavery to the point that attitudes changed, laws were enacted, and society and culture thereby changed. Philosophers had to catch up. That is true across the board in ethics. Except for a tiny handful of writings (Mill’s on women’s rights, for example; Locke on individual liberty and equal rights), philosophers were, and still are, not at the vanguard of any advance in morality and ethics. Philosophers didn’t discover and start the push for animals rights, civil rights, rights for the disabled, the dienfranchised, they didn’t push first, before everyone else, for increased diversity and respect for all humans and all life. They had to catch up to these ideas, and frankly, many are lagging quite far behind, still.

“But even so,” you might reply, “philosophers now know that slavery is wrong. That’s an advance, as you clearly admitted, so philosophy does advance.”

Oh yeah… why is slavery immoral? No two philosophers will answer this the same way. Even within the consequentialists in my department there are several different explanations as to why slavery is immoral. We just know that it is. And knowing the latter is something many know. Philosophy’s job–if it even has one–is to explain or say why slavery is immoral. And it hasn’t done that.

The thing I want to highlight here is the process of first coming to a conclusion (slavery is immoral) and then trying to come up with a justification for it. Even if philosophers managed to agree on why slavery is immoral, the fact that they mainly tried to come up with a justification after the fact leads you to suspect that their justification didn’t have anything to do with the real reason people decided slavery was immoral. And that would raise suspicions that they hadn’t found the real reason why slavery is immoral, in spite of their agreement with each other.

I also had occasion to think about this when reading Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker, in the chapter on what he calls the “Humanitarian Revolution” of the 18th and 19th centuries, writes:

I am prepared to take this line of explanation a step further: The reason so many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and John Stuart Mill coalesced into a worldview that we call Enlightenment humanism. (It is also sometimes called classical liberalism, though since the 1960s the word liberalism has acquired other meanings as well.) Here is a potted account of this philosophy–a rough but more or less coherent composite of the views of these Enlightenment thinkers…

Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games. This foundation of morality may be seen in the many versions of the Golden Rule that have been discovered by the world’s major religions, and also in Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Hobbes and Rousseau’s Social Contract, and Locke and Jefferson’s self-evident truth that all people are created equal (pp. 180, 182).

I don’t know how anyone with a halfway decent knowledge of the history of philosophy could read this–or for that matter write it–without wincing. The truth is that there was no coherent philosophy shared by all these thinkers. Hobbes’ Social Contract was motivated entirely by self-interest. Kant was not only fanatically opposed to self-interest but also thought it was morally wrong to take into account the effects of your actions on other people. And Hume infamously denied it was against reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of your little finger. There’s no way we can say that their arguments “slew” anything, because their arguments were mutually incompatible.

Insofar as their conclusions converge, my guess is that it’s because they took conclusions which were already starting to become popular and then set out to justify them. Even of Locke, who the author of “There Is No Progress in Philosophy” allows was an exception to the general pattern. His famous Two Treatises of Government was published a year after the British Parliament established it’s authority over the King in the Glorious Revolution. His Letter Concerning Toleration reached conclusions similar to Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, but through very different arguments, and both works came after Europeans had had plenty of opportunity to get sick of killing each other over religion.

This is extremely relevant to debates over the value of philosophy. And not just because philosophy can’t claim credit for moral progress, but also because it’s a strike against the claim that studying philosophy makes you better at finding the truth. It may just make you better at post-hoc rationalizations of things you came to believe for other reasons.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    What are philosophers good at?

    I don’t know, but it’s not making hypertext links.

  • Ryan

    Is there any way out of this terrible trap of human irrationality and self-deception that we live in? I don’t know, maybe if we all took steps to increase our rationality we could at lease begin to avoid it:

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    I have a reputation of not being impressed by philosophers. I particularly dislike the postmodernists, but the modernists and premodernists* aren’t that spectacular either.

    Note, I’m not saying philosophers are completely worthless. A few of them, with luck and going downhill with a following wind, are capable of scraping something worthwhile from the bottom of the barrel. William of Ockham invented a useful philosophical tool and doubtless other philosophers have come up with equally valuable ideas.

    However, when the notable philosophers of the past few decades include Alvin Plantinga, a devotee of special pleading and the false dilemma; Richard Rorty, who said that the truth of beliefs does not consist in their correspondence with reality but in their efficacy; and William Lane Craig, apologist for genocide, then I’ve got reason for not holding philosophers in high regard.

    *Yeah, these probably aren’t the names philosophers use for their non-postmodernist ilk. Ask me if I give a damn.

  • Sammi C

    Philosophy is word games, of little practical importance. It is probably good to learn a little philosophy as it helps one to develop one’s reasoning skills, but I agree that few philosophers have ever made any significant contribution to the world of knowledge outside philosophy. Indeed, philosophers share many of the characteristics of theologians: in particular, a hypocritical pretence that they go from axioms or assumptions via reason to conclusion (rather than the other way round) and secondly a tendency to screech “ooo you don’t understand!” whenever anybody tells them they’re talking bollocks that isn’t worth discussing.

    Of course, if I find myself on a bridge with a fat man of criminal tendencies who I can push onto the rails below to stop a runaway train full of lovely babies, then I might regret not showing more respect for the infantile “trolley” morality debates.

    Philosophers are keen that scientists should respect the philosophy of science, but few philosophers seem to recognise the contrary point: that philosophers should learn something of the science of philosophy.

    Ultimately, like theologians, they often seem to miss the point that words are only words, and an argument that relies on word play is only valid in the land of word play.

  • mnb0

    How do you separate a real reason from a not-real reason? You can’t? Then your suspicion is baked air as well.
    You could have used another, more recent example. Popper formulated his falsifiability because, so after, he noticed the successes of the exact sciences.
    The question is if this means if philosophy is worthless. I don’t think so. Sure philosophers since long have had to give up their pursuit for truth. There is another valuable task left: formulating and thinking through the presuppositions of any given theory. If that means that they always lag behind, so be it.
    Now we also can recognize why eg Craig is a lame philosopher. He tries as hard he can to hide his presuppositions.
    An example of good philosophy, even if I vehemently disagree:

    It’s good exactly because Rutten makes himself vulnerable to criticism.

  • Kevin

    Philosophy concerns semantics and we all know what happens when you try to argue about semantics.

  • G.D.

    First a point: Why equate philosophy with ethics? Ethics is merely a single branch of philosophy.

    Furthermore: Discovering that ethics generally deploy post hoc rationalizations is rather uninteresting, since any of the moral philosophers you mention are pretty explicit about that from the get-go. A test for any moral system – pretty much the only test ethicists can up with – is how well it fit with moral intuitions (what else would you use?). That said, it is rather hard to determine the feedback loops involved. Yes, ethics track moral intuitions, but also systematize these intuitions and spell out the logical space in which they exist, what principles could be said to underlie them, what moral intuitions have in common and if there are some general goals they are driving at. Fleshing out underlying principles and systematizing the judgments can itself be valuable, and the work of moral philosophers such as Locke and Kant and others were widely read, disseminated and influential. Yes, their conclusions certainly reflected the moral sentiments (the progressive ones, at least) of their days (Bentham’s views on punishment, or on animal rights, were pretty novel – I don’t know of any real precursors), but their work also contributed to the sentiment by generalizing the ideas reflected in these sentiments, developing frameworks that could be used to justify them and that could be used in reasoning about moral issues.

    ‘Tis Himself: “… when the notable philosophers of the past few decades include Alvin Plantinga, a devotee of special pleading and the false dilemma; Richard Rorty, who said that the truth of beliefs does not consist in their correspondence with reality but in their efficacy; and William Lane Craig, apologist for genocide, then I’ve got reason for not holding philosophers in high regard.”

    Which strikes me as parallel to “when notable biologists of the last decade, Michael Behe and David DeWitt, defend Intelligent Design and creationism, respectively, that gives me reasons not to hold biologists in high regard”.

    Or in other words: you provide a far from accurate representation of Rorty (though I agree that Rorty is ridiculously wrong, it is not for the strawman reason you set up), and then dismiss Lane Craig (who is a moron) with one of the most blatant ad hominem arguments I have ever seen. From that you draw a conclusion about philosophers in general.

    Most Philosophy departments offer classes in critical thinking. May I suggest you sign up?

    (Plantinga and Lane Craig are pretty peripheral in the academic discipline, by the way, though they have managed to make an impact outside of philosophy (roughly comparable to Behe and DeWitt). The same is the case with Rorty, by the way, whose influence is primarily on other disciplines than philosophy. You’ll have a hard time finding professional philosophers taking any of these three seriously, apart perhaps from some of Plantinga’s early (and thoroughly outdated) stuff.)

  • Ace of Sevens

    Some ethicists, like Pete Singer, are actually trying to lay out a consistent moral system with challenging ideas, not just justify what people already believe. Philosopers of science have also done a lot to demonstrate that science is giving us information about the real world and shooting down “different ways of knowing” and “separate magisteria” crap. Your objection seems to be that philosophy reflects the real world and not vice-versa, which means you have odd expectations of what it’s supposed to do.

    • josh

      His objection is that it reflects the society of the time and there’s no evidence it reflects the real world any better than that society at large.

  • jamessweet

    I’m reminded somewhat of the decisions of Supreme Court justices, who are supposed to be these paragons of interpreting the law… except that, with disturbing regularity, it comes down to a party-line vote — with majority and dissenting opinions laid out in a glorious (and beautiful, if you know how to read it) display of judicial rationalization, of course. There are exceptions, where justices will rule on principle rather than on their political allegiance. But still… One is force to the conclusion that all of this glorious and beautiful judicial reasoning is simply a post hoc rationalization for what the justices already wanted to think anyway.

  • kagerato

    My self-concept is leans more toward pragmatist and realist, so it is with modest surprise that I find myself actually wanting to defend philosophers. However, the argument being put forth here is simply so terrible that I can’t resist.

    Does anyone else see any problem with using only popular, widely renowned philosophers as evidence of what philosophers as a whole think and do?

    Anyone? Ah, you, you in the back:

    “Isn’t it possible that these people might have become the leading philosophers of their day precisely because they reflected popular biases?”


    The cutting edge of philosophy is not in ivory towers. Of course people appointed and paid to tell you a particular viewpoint will do their job. Why did you think otherwise?

    The true workshop of reason has always been among the people. It develops from the ground up and then spreads throughout society. When the conclusions have become too obvious to ignore, the ruling class of the time will ultimately appoint some old long-bearded vanguard to take credit for it, of course. Why would it be any other way?

    Saying that this means there is no progress in philosophy is retrograde stupidity. You start by defining philosophy as the views of a narrow, elite few and then complain when they present arguments which look oddly like something which would benefit a powerful and elite group of people. Who would have thought?

    Exactly this same argument could be used to “discredit” the law, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and many other fields of human endeavor. We do make plenty of progress in all of these — unless you count smaller or simpler as necessarily better by default.

    At any given time, the general consensus on knowledge about anything may be mistaken. It is rare for this to ever change based upon the work of just a few people. Even the greatest revolutionaries like Newton and Darwin stood on the shoulders of giants, and they upon others before them.

    Pointing to morons today who deny Newton’s laws of motion or the theory of evolution does not do anything to disprove progress in physics or biology. Indeed, we know for a fact now that Newton and Darwin’s ideas were quite incomplete and in need of further investigation and explanation.

    The anti-reason bent here is pretty jarring, to be honest. Why is slavery immoral? Well, it’s not immoral if there are multiple explanations, you see! All philosophers everywhere must agree on exactly one reason and one set of premises for why slavery is immoral, or we might as well just repeal the 13th amendment right now!

    Dear FSM, save me with your noodly appendage. >_>

    Ask yourself: does it really matter whether slavery is immoral because it violates a fundamental right to self and labor, because it causes grievous mental and physical harm, because it undermines the basis of a free society and all other rights, because holding people in captivity with violence is wrong, because it is fundamentally unjust to divide people into groups based upon any arbitrary criteria, or any one of half a dozen other reasons philosophers have come up with? They’re all true. Cries to the contrary, we as a society didn’t just wake up one day and decide that slavery was immoral. Nor was the view point suddenly imposed on us by a group of elites. We developed the various underlying justifications for the immortality of slavery gradually over time, with many people playing the role of part-time philosopher. Some of these were codified in formal, written moral arguments in advance, others were not. It truly doesn’t matter, and does not do anything to undermine the reality of moral progress and better reasoning.

    • kagerato

      Hmm, my proof-reading missed a couple there:

      (1) Strike the first ‘is’ in the first paragraph.
      (2) Strike the ‘t’ in immortality in the last paragraph; should be immorality.

      An edit function would be nice, though (*_*).

    • James M

      The No True Scotsman argument. “Those aren’t the real philosophers. The real philosophers are all those other people who aren’t actually doing philosophy, but I will go ahead and call those people the real philosophers and thus attribute all of the cultural, ethical, political, and dare I say scientific progress being made to philosophy.”

      Post Hoc rationalization. You prove the point that you attempt to denigrate.

      • kagerato

        You don’t appear to have understood what I wrote. I didn’t declare that they weren’t “real” philosophers. They certainly are.

        Furthermore, I missed the part where I claimed that philosophers get the entire credit for all cultural, ethical, political, and scientific progress. It may be the case, as is my argument, that people who make progress in these fields qualify as philosophers even if not professionally employed as one. There are such things as amateurs, after all. However, this has completely independent of my explanation for why professional philosophers tend to speak the biases of their time.

        As a side note, I’m getting increasingly annoyed with the tendency, especially on the internet, of replies citing a particular logical fallacy and then forcing statements into a framework that fits that fallacy. It’s broken reasoning and doesn’t attempt to address what was said. Or would you prefer my entire reply to be “STRAWMAN” and just leave it at that? Maybe I could throw in some fancy words, perhaps Latin, to make myself look more intelligent, too.

        • James M

          To quote you,

          “The true workshop of reason has always been among the people. It develops from the ground up and then spreads throughout society. When the conclusions have become too obvious to ignore, the ruling class of the time will ultimately appoint some old long-bearded vanguard to take credit for it, of course. Why would it be any other way?”

          No True Scotsman. Pay attention to your words, please. You are denying that you are making the very argument you are making. Right there. Your words. No true scotsman. The ivory tower philosophers aren’t doing the real philosophy. The common man is. Therefore philosophy can claim all the progress. Your words. Right there.

          • kagerato

            That paragraph discusses reason, not philosophy. Philosophy is the study of general problems, and although it is expected to use reason, the two are not one and the same.

            In any event, what I said is probably worded too strongly there, so I see why you misunderstood it. That paragraph was not intended to imply that philosophers don’t use reason; rather, it is that they use it for their own ends. Those ends in the professional case might or might not be for the good of society, and there’s no way to tell in the abstract. You have to consider particular cases. However, I did give reason to think that those who actually achieve fame (if not riches) may be more likely to express the popular biases of the time.

            I’m not sure why you again re-state something I didn’t claim, that philosophy can “claim all the credit” for anything. It can’t and it doesn’t. I don’t think philosophy honestly gets credit for much of anything outside the realm of moral philosophy, to be honest. Even that credit it often has to share with science.

            Nonetheless, I am still befuddled by why only a small set of academic philosophers are considered genuine and that there is apparently no meaningful progress in philosophy among the people. It seems as though if you don’t get your name in a history book you don’t count as a philosopher. That’s the real inversion of this, and certainly a “no true scotsman” issue.

            Beyond that, do you stop being a philosopher as soon as you discover (and publish) something of use? David Hume isn’t mentioned in the OP, but he contributed strongly to the widespread understanding of the is-ought problem, also known as the naturalistic fallacy. John Locke is mentioned, and for some reason this counterexample doesn’t count for anything. Likewise, you can find contributions in American thinkers from the same Enlightenment school — among them were Jefferson and Madison.

            John Stuart Mill is for some reason talked about only in terms of women’s rights. How can you mention Mill without talking about Utilitarianism? Mill and Jeremy Bentham were the principle popularizers of utility in moral theory. That doesn’t mean they were the very first to think of it, but they were certainly among the leading proponents and deserve a large share of the credit for its widespread adoption.

            Somehow this doesn’t count as “progress”. I don’t understand. What would count as progress, then?

            It’s easy to show the lie that moral philosophers aren’t “ahead of the times” these days. Maybe it wasn’t always so in the past, but here are a few of the issue moral philosophy is years ahead of the general public today:

            Abortion Rights
            Animal Rights
            Artificial Intelligence, and its potential personhood
            Childhood Development, Child Rearing
            Consciousness, plus the meaning and implications thereof
            Copyright (and the asinine labor theory of value)
            Polyamory and Multiple Marriage
            War Crimes, the Rights of Prisoners of War, and Torture

            These are just subjects I was able to think of off-hand; there must be more. Some of them are at least loosely interrelated or have common ground between them.

            If you still don’t understand, think of it this way:

            Pull some random fool off the street. Chances are his moral views closely match these statements:

            * Abortion should be illegal in at least some circumstances or for some countervailing reason.

            * The vast majority of animals have no rights of any kind. Or, the rights of an animal are determined by how cute it is.

            * There is no possible way in which a machine would qualify for legal rights.

            * Children ought to be raised with the parents as a clear authority, and punishment to maintain this order is justified.

            * Consciousness has something to do with a soul or other magic entity. If the brain is involved, it only plays a partial role.

            * People (or the subsequent copyright owner) have an strict right to control copies of information they originally published, and the length, breadth, and impact of this control specified by law are just (or nearly so). Similarly, the purpose of copyright is ownership/control or personal profit, not the progress of science and the useful arts.

            * Incest is immoral. Always. So icky. Hell, it’s not okay even if they’re not actually related.

            * Marriage is between two people only. People should be strictly faithful to a singe lover at any given time.

            * Bombings and other pre-emptive attacks are fine so long as there is a reason of some sort given. Prisoners of war forfeit the ordinary rights of citizens and may be tortured if it is believed useful information can be extracted from them.

            Moral philosophers contest all of these views, with more than sufficient good reason. On most of these issues, perhaps with the exception of AI and androids, they’ve been making counterarguments against the prevailing public views for decades.

            But, you see, it’s all worthless because everyone isn’t in lockstep agreement. Moral philosophers just can’t agree on exactly one reason for why these views are wrong, so their entire work is bunk. Why, you can even find a cranky old man at every university in the country who disagrees with one (or more) of them, so they can’t possibly be right.

            I make no contest that philosophers sometimes engage in post-hoc rationalization, or in less fancy words starting with the conclusion and developing the premises. Everyone does that. Philosophers are not magic people even if they wear funny hats.

            The issue is that philosophers have been defined out of existence. As soon as you do something useful, you’re a “social activist”, not a philosopher anymore. Silly.

          • James M

            “The issue is that philosophers have been defined out of existence. As soon as you do something useful, you’re a “social activist”, not a philosopher. Silly.

            A social activist can come the conclusions that spur thr activism without rationalizations of philosophy. Philosophy remains as an ad hoc rationalization for the motivations. Philosophy is just an entirely subject

          • James M

            “The issue is that philosophers have been defined out of existence. As soon as you do something useful, you’re a “social activist”, not a philosopher. Silly.

            A social activist can come the conclusions that spur thr activism without rationalizations of philosophy. Philosophy remains as an ad hoc rationalization for the motivations. Philosophy is just an entirely subjective field of inquiry that masquerades as having objectivity.

  • One Brow

    Mathematicians pick and choose among the axioms that they need to create the theorems they think are interesting. No one says mathematics is useless or arbitrary because of this. mathematics is just a formal system, and that’s how formal systems operate. We judge the mathematical theorem, and the axiomsw that went into it, based on it’s usefulnes as well as beauty.

    Philosophy is also a formal system. You choose the inital axioms and the methods of deriving new truths, and judge the results based on how useful and elegant they are. This does not make philosophy useless any more than mathematics is useless. Every thime we make a decision based on what we think is right, what we think is pleasing, what we think is our duty, etc., we are using philosophy.

    • James M

      On the contrary, mathematics has proven to be extraordinarily useful where philosophy has not. Just equating philosophy to mathematics as two formal systems does not extend to philosophy any amount of truth or usefulness.

      I was just reading Richard C Tolman’s “The Theory of the Relativity of Motion” and found an excellent statement after he derives the mass-energy equivalency e = mc^2:

      “We may also point out that those opposing camps of philosophic materialists who defend matter on the one hand or enegy on the other as the fundamental entity of the universe may now forever cease their unimportant bickerings.”

      • One Brow

        On the contrary, mathematics has proven to be extraordinarily useful where philosophy has not.

        Some mathematics has proved very useful, some has not. I can provide examples of not-useful mathematics, if you so require.

        Some philosophy has proved useful, some has not. The concepts of “freedom of speech”, “separation of powers”, and “separation of church and state” all express the consideration of politcal phiulosophy, put into practical use in many places. The notions of duty, independence, aqnd guidance that parents expr3ess every day come from their philosophies on interpersonal relationships. The Hipposcratic Oath, seal of the confessional, etc. come from the philosophiy of the need for a person to feel safe. Every culture is steeped in philosphical considerations that have molded its traditions.

        Thaqt some philosophical questions have been settled does not imply that philosophy is useless.

    • josh

      Philosophy is not a formal system.

      • One Brow

        What qualities of a formal system does philosophy lack?

        • Ray

          Agreed upon definitions and agreed upon standards for proof for starters.

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  • Richard Wein

    I would say that there’s been philosophical progress in the sense that the best philosophy of today is an improvement on the best philosophy of the past. But philosophy as a whole doesn’t progress much, because so much of it is misguided that the good philosophy doesn’t achieve a consensus.

    I suppose that misguided philosophers too would claim that their philosophy is the good stuff, and it’s the misguided others who are getting in the way of a consensus. From the point of view of the outsider there’s no reason to believe any of them (unless you find the arguments persuasive). Philosophy is not like science or history, where there’s sufficient consensus among the experts that you can take the consensus as source of authority.

    Moreover, even the good philosophy has little practical value. So, unlike good science, it can’t be identified by the fact that it works. But the lack of practical value also has an advantage: it doesn’t much matter which philosophers are right.

    That said, “philosophy” is a vague and broad term that can extend to include some subjects of more practical value. But the more practical they are, the less distinctively philosophical. Some philosophy overlaps with politics and sociology. Epistemology overlaps with statistical theory and practice (e.g. Bayesian). Some philosophy could be relevant to AI design. Philosophers might make useful contributions to those fields, but they don’t need to wear a “philosophy” hat to do so.

    Returning to my original claim, what do I think is the “best” philosophy, the sort of philosophy that has made progress? Well, very broadly I think that the best philosophy is “naturalized” philosophy, which takes a more scientific, empirical and descriptive approach to philosophy, and is more skeptical about normative claims. Of course, even among those who take such an approach there’s much disgreement. But the very fact that more philosophers are taking such an approach to some degree is progress in my view.

    As I see it, most philosophers do not pay sufficient attention to the lessons of science. Science has shown itself to be our most effective way of knowing about the world, and as far as possible we should take it as our starting point. Too many philosophers, however, remain committed to the traditional method of arguing from their intuitions. For example, as Andres Ruiz describes, most moral philosophy is still rooted in moral intuitions. But moral properties like moral goodness can’t be observed. We have no reason to think they exist, apart from our intuition that they do. A more scientific attitude would reject the existence of moral properties, on the grounds that the assumption of their existence is unparsimonious and without explanatory value. Our observations can be better explained without them. (I’m a moral error theorist.)

    Human knowledge has grown in an evolutionary way. Science was not a radical departure from previous ways of thinking. It developed out of them, and has continued to develop by small steps. Similarly, philosophy needs to evolve out of other empirical knowledge. It can’t pull itself up by its own bootstraps, as traditional philosophy has often tried to do by appeals to a priori knowledge.

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