Discussion: what philosophical arguments should everyone know about?

One of my most-read posts of all-time is my post on Judith Jarvis Thompson’s “famous violinist” argument in defense of abortion. It’s somewhat unusual among my blogging in that I have something unambiguously positive to say about a very typical bit of contemporary philosophy (as opposed to, say, heretical x-phi stuff on free will.) I like it when lots of people read something I’ve written, so I’m thinking about trying to write more posts like it, specifically in the sense of posts that explain a bit of philosophy more people should know about. But what would I write about?

What’s remarkable about the famous violinist thought-experiment is that it’s something that seems to have a chance of improving the quality of a lot of ordinary people’s thinking about a topic they care about. Unfortunately, though, this seems pretty rare. Standard lists of “great philosophical ideas” are way too heavy on “look at this crazy-sounding thing a famous person said!” For example: “Hume said we can’t know if the sun will rise tomorrow!” Or “Kant said it’s wrong to lie to Nazis who want to know if you’re hiding any Jews!” Or “Something about Bentham and rabbits!”

Ahem. The point is that it’s unclear at best whether exposure to these ideas actually improves the quality of anyone’s thinking. In some cases, I rather suspect they damage it. The other side of this problem is that less crazy pieces of philosophy, like Gettier’s argument against the JTB analysis of knowledge, have no clear relevance for things ordinary people care about.

But maybe I’m overlooking something important? What philosophical arguments do you think everyone should know about?

  • http://notungblog.wordpress.com/ Notung

    My answer would be all of it or none of it.

    Let’s face it, there are no philosophical arguments that you ‘need’ to know in order to live your life in any particular way save for Ethics, and even then people ignore them. For instance, I once argued that we ought to all give all our wealth (excepting for that needed for our own subsistence) to those who need it. Did I do it myself? No!

    I suppose if you count Political Philosophy then that is a lot more relevant. How should power, wealth and labour be divided? Should we have Free Speech? And so on.

    But questions like ‘what is knowledge?’ and ‘does the external world exist?’ do not really have any impact in our lives. They are very interesting yet esoteric, and I don’t think any one question (or argument) stands above the rest as having some special importance to the ‘vulgar’ (as the Early Moderns like to call them!).

    I say this because every philosophical argument that I can think of that isn’t Ethics or Politics has the same kind of relevance as the Gettier objection. I want to know it, presumably you do too, but I think it’ll be hard to convince others who just don’t care what knowledge actually is.

    I realise this comment is rather unhelpful, so I’ll give you an argument I like in case people find it interesting. David Lewis’ defence of modal realism. It sounds completely nutty to just hear the position stated, but his reasoning is ingenious. I don’t believe it myself, but that’s the beauty of philosophy. It isn’t about what you believe, but what you can argue for.

  • http://aigbusted.blogspot.com Ryan

    I think people ought to know about Hume’s argument for disbelief in miracles and about contemporary thoughts about it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      I think Hume was basically correct in his argument against miracles (at least if I understand him correctly), but my impression is that most people find his argument fairly un-intuitive. Christians apologists love to rail about how the only reason Biblical scholars disbelieve in miracles is because of an argument from closed-minded Hume, who screwed up because he didn’t understand probability theory, or something.

      Not a word of that is true, but rather than explain why that’s wrong, it’s so much simpler to say, “Look, the evidence for your miracles suck, you wouldn’t buy that evidence if it were being used to support any other religion.”

  • –bill

    “What is science?” would be an excellent philosophical argument that people at FtB should be familiar with.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    People should know that there is such a thing as epistemology, that you can know things about your own way of knowing, and that this sort of meta-analysis both strengthens one’s mental functions and prevents intellectual errors.

    Except maybe you shouldn’t use that word “intellectual”, so as not to scare off the people who most need that sort of help.

    • http://thewrongmonkey.blogspot.com/ Steven Bollinger

      It might also be good to have a campaign to improve the reception of the word “intellectual.”

  • Bruce Gorton

    The most important philosophy one can know about is the fallacies. Know what they are and why they are fallacies.

  • –bill

    Here’s a partial list of more specific arguments about science:

    Hempel and the raven

    Feyerabend’s argument against method

    Kuhn’s ideas about normal science, paradigms, and revolutions

    Popper’s falsifiability and critiques thereof

    what is a law of nature?

    Bloor and Barnes strong programme

    • SAWells

      Since most actual scientists get along just fine without any of these, I’m dubious about using their value to anybody. Francis Bacon wrote a very nice book called “The Advancement of Learning” about 400 years ago which includes all the useful bits of falsifiability, paradigm shifts etc. anyway.

      • –bill

        When doing science, most scientists don’t need to know about philosophy of science. But claims like “science and religion are necessarily incompatible” require a solid understanding of what “science” is.

  • SAWells

    Maybe the most important thing people should know is that it’s okay to think.

    In terms of actual examples, the proof that the square root of 2 is an irrational number would be a personal favourite.

  • http://physicalism.wordpress.com Physicalist

    It’s good to know the basic positions and arguments concerning free will, so one doesn’t end up a silly incompatibilist (like a certain biologist I could name).

    One should understand the arguments against epistemological and ethical relativism, so one doesn’t foolishly think that a requirement of tolerance implies (or even is compatible with) relativism.

    It’s good to know the basics of major ethical theories (utilitarianism, some sort of deontological acct. like Kant’s, social contract, and maybe virtue theory), so one doesn’t think that ethics is a mystery that lies in the domain of religion. This is important both to see the flaws of divine command (or “natural law”) accounts of ethics, and also so one isn’t tempted to give up on an objective foundation of ethics when one abandons religion. (I see too many atheists out there claiming that materialism implies that all morality is relative.)

    I agree with -bill (above) that some basic philosophy of science is a good idea. Contra SAWells, I have seen plenty of scientists get themselves twisted up because they have an overly naive view of how science works. Also, an understanding of science would help undermine much of the denialist garbage floating around.

    I think it’s a good idea for people to know some of the basic arguments for physicalism: the problem of interaction for dualism, and the causal closure of physics. (But maybe I’m biased . . . )

  • http://chessconfessions.blogspot.com Blue Devil Knight

    Not sure these count as arguments, but they are important:
    Frege’s division b/w sense and reference. Great for deflating those that say consciousness can’t be a brain process because they don’t mean to be talking about a brain process when the discuss their experiences. Should be universally known, but is not.
    Putnam’s Twin Earth. Too many people don’t know about this who should.
    Jackson’s Mary. I don’t follow him to antimaterialism, and even he doesn’t any more, but it is a great thought experiment.
    Eliminative materialism. A real exposition can be done quickly, and sympathetically (vs the crappy caricatures you get online from blog hacks).
    Rawls veil of ignorance.

  • http://anadder.com MichaelF

    Chris, that depends — are you only looking for arguments that would have a direct and obvious effect on people’s lives (as some of your post seems to imply) or is it good enough to just give arguments that might push people toward a reasonable position on certain issues even if there’s no clear immediate benefit?

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      The second thing would be enough, if it’s an issue ordinary people care about. I mean, changing a few minds about abortion won’t always have an immediate benefit either.

      • http://anadder.com MichaelF

        Then I’m throwing out Euthyphro as a test case. To me it seems uncontroversial that most people’s thinking about morality is based on some falsehoods that Euthyphro dispels so even if there’s no direct benefit to me they’ve still got rid of a falsehood.

        However, your attitude to philosophy seems to be so low at the moment that you might not consider even that useful. If you do, I have a longer list that there’s no point in thinking about if we’re on different pages about your standards for usefulness.

        • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

          Euthyphro is a good one, though like Hume’s argument against miracles I’m not sure it’s the most effective way to frame the issue, because as written it leads to wasted time on whether the horns of the dilemma are exhaustive. Better to just say, “Divine command theory says if God commands genocide, then genocide is right, and obviously that’s crazy.”

          • http://anadder.com MichaelF

            True – but then to me that’s in essence saying that there are less rigorous (and often wrong) arguments that are rhetorically more effective than the more unintuitive philosophical arguments. Which is certainly true but I’d put that as a separate issue. If we’re assuming the idealisation of a member of the public that has good reasoning ability and just hasn’t been exposed to philosophical arguments then I say go with Euthyphro rather than the genocide argument. If we’re talking the psychology of people’s actual beliefs then all bets are off anyway…

            Some other candidates in line with Euthyphro:
            1. I’d say Hume on miracles is not unintuitive, but that’s probably my skeptical bias.
            2. There should be something about the problems with dualism and similar ideas. There, I think the best arguments are actually the worst ones by philosophers on the wrong side of an issue. Best candidate may be Searle’s Chinese Room which might have the effect that reading the Bible often has for Christian belief. Runner up: Chalmers’ dancing qualia (but this is a lot more technical).
            3. Other stuff by Hume on religion.
            4. Basic utilitarianism, at least in its most coherent frame, leaving rabbits out.
            5. In line with your cynicism about much of philosophy, I actually think Wittgenstein on philosophy problems being pseudo-problems that stem from artifacts of language (and the way they should often be dissolved rather than solved) is very useful at least in terms of the general principle. Particularly corrosive to the kinds of arguments employed against atheists, skeptics and so on.

          • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

            Actually, I’m not sure the Euthyphro argument is even right, because I’m not sure the horns of the dilemma really are exhaustive. While on the other hand, showing a moral theory has crazy consequences is a perfectly standard way to critique moral theories among professional philosophers. So I think the genocide argument may win even by the standards of professional philosophers.

  • josh

    Something to notice about the “famous violinist” argument is that it’s not very Philosopher-y, at least in any specialized way. Whether or not you like the argument, it’s a straightforward thought experiment of the type that lots of people do all the time. We take a controversial question and try to draw an analogy or push it to an extreme case in order to convince people they should come down on one side or another of the issue. I’m pretty sure millions of people have come up with variations on it regardless of whether they have heard of Judith Jarvis Thompson’s Famous Violinist.

    So it gets comments because it’s an issue people care about and everyone clearly has opinions about what this specific thought experiment should imply about the specific issue of abortion. But there’s nothing technical about the idea, it’s not full of jargon or grafted on to a larger, more abstract framework. (Maybe Thompson tries to do that elsewhere, I don’t know.) If Thompson where arguing for the primacy of Bodily Autonomy in the Telic Hierarchy of Virtue because of its resonance with the fundamental Sanctity of Unity, or some such, I think more people would (rightly) ignore it.

  • mnb0

    Ockham’s razor and Popper’s falsifiability.
    What else do you expect from a teacher maths and physics?

    If you want to dig a little deeper: Bohr’s correspondence principle.

  • johnhodges

    I think that all atheists, and ideally (unattainably) all people who graduate High School, should be aware of (1) the existence of philosophy, the bare fact that lots of smart people have thought about and reached conclusions about knowledge and ethics without any appeal to Divine Revelation. (2) the basic Deist critique of Divine Revelation, as given in one (ought to be famous) paragraph by Thomas Paine
    http://www.atheistnexus.org/profiles/blogs/crucial-quote-from-thomas-paine-about-revelation
    and (3) the existence and relevance of logic, the idea that there are arguments that are bad even though they may sound good, and even though lots of people use them often. The idea that people who care that their arguments be good and their beliefs likely to be true should learn and use logic.

    It just really bugs me that Christian evangelists are still making the argument that “If you don’t believe in God, then you may be able to live an ethical life, but you cannot have any foundations for your ethics.” That the only possible source of ethics is religion. This has been known to be false for thousands of years; often this is explained in Phil 101. Of course I would like people to learn more than that, but please, at least that.

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    Or “Something about Bentham and rabbits!”

    I don’t recognize this reference. I googled for “bentham rabbits”, but all the hits are about places to buy rabbits in Bentham, UK. :D

  • Besomyka

    For me, the topics that have most influenced me and that I’d want other people to know about are:

    Epistemology and the major schools of thought within the topic. People should have that conversation with themselves at least as a basis for evaluating other information.

    Philosophy of Mind and an overview of the major schools of thought. I’m partial to functionalism, and discussing the Chinese Room is a good one.

    One of the most important things that I learned in discussing philosophical propositions is the notion that I might have missed something. That something in the way a question is posed presupposed something that I’ve tacitly accepted.

    Being forced to become aware of that oversight was a profound realization. For me, that came from Pascal’s Wager.

    General discussions of paradoxes is fun.

  • justsomeguy

    Not a specific philosophical argument, but I imagine all people would benefit from some instruction on logical fallacies, how to identify them and how to refute them.

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  • http://thewrongmonkey.blogspot.com/ Steven Bollinger

    There’s Nietzsche’s argument in favor of demonstrating how religious belief arises instead of becoming too bogged down in refuting every argument brought forward by the religious. Their standards for what constitutes an argument are generally much lower than ours, at least on religious subjects, as any atheist knows who has ever debated a believer, and for every argument of theirs we refute, they can have several more waiting for us. It’s a hamster wheel, and we should climb off of it and show ourselves more respect, insisting that an argument rise to a certain level before it becomes worthy of our detailed refutation.

  • –bill

    Also–what postmodernism is and is not.