From the archives: Philosophy is dysfunctional

Given all my occasional sniping about academic philosophy, I can’t believe I haven’t yet moved over this post, originally written in July of last year. There was also a follow-up post, which I’ll also move over at some point. It’s relevant to rebutting religious apologetics, insofar as it is frequently claimed that philosophy vindicates religion.

I’m now convinced that, as an academic discipline, philosophy is dysfunctional. The source of the problem is that, as Peter van Inwagen once said, “Philosophers do not agree about anything to speak of.” (Some philosophers might not agree with him about this, but from what I’ve seen, van Inwagen is right–see also some hard data here).

When I say this causes problems, I don’t mean that for philosophy to become functional we need to force philosophers to agree somehow. That would do more harm than good. But the lack of agreement among philosophers still causes problems. Most obviously, it makes philosophy not so useful to non-philosophers, since they can’t figure out what to believe based on expert consensus. But it also encourages perverse behavior by philosophers.

Here’s why: while philosophers pride themselves on caring about producing good arguments and getting at the truth, if they don’t agree what arguments are good or what the truth is, they can’t reward each other for doing either of those things. So philosophers aren’t under any pressure to get anything important right, and I don’t think they’re under any significant pressure to actually produce good arguments. What they are under pressure to demonstrate cleverness, and demonstrate being in tune with philosophical fads and cliques.

Pressure to be clever is a problem because clever does not equal right. Clever can be the enemy of right. As a very wise contributor to Less Wrong once said: “Any idiot can tell you why death is bad, but it takes a very particular sort of idiot to believe that death might be good.” So if you’re worried about being mistaken for just any idiot, take the position that any idiot can see is wrong.

Consider an example that seems too silly to be real. If I hold up two fingers and ask “how many fingers am I holding up?” saying “two” will not demonstrate cleverness. It only shows that you are conscious, speak English, and can see straight. If you want to be clever, you might say something like, “I don’t know how many fingers you’re holding up, because who really knows anything, anyway?”

Not that that’s actually a very clever answer. It’s sophomoric. But consider this answer: “The problem of external world skepticism has yet to be adequately addressed by philosophers. Many contemporary philosophers simply dismiss it, but I think these dismissals fail to adequately grapple with it, or even understand the real nature of the problem. However, I also believe that recent work in philosophy has made considerable progress towards solving the problem.” There, now we’re talking. So much better than just saying “two.”

The problem is especially bad when it comes to publishing. As one of my professors at Notre Dame once remarked, there is no such thing as the journal of one-sentence dissents. So, you might be able to publish a paper that develops a complex argument premised on the claim that p, even if your only support for p is to claim that there’s a philosophical consensus that p. However, there is no place where you can publish a short paragraph that says, “here are some prominent philosophers that think not-p, so there’s hardly a consensus and p needs some other support.”

In other words, it is sometimes easier to publish a complex argument with one glaring flaw, than it is to publish something that succinctly and decisively points out the flaw. And because “publish or perish” is the rule in academia, this means philosophers have an incentive to spend more formulating complex arguments that may or may not have real merit, and not much incentive to point out obvious flaws in other people’s arguments.

Incidentally, this also you can’t trust major philosophy journals to have all the best arguments on both sides of a philosophical issue. For example, many of contributors to this book and this book do an excellent job of pointing out the problems with William Lane Craig’s moral argument, but you’ll never see those criticisms in a “serious” journal article, because they’re so utterly obvious. For the same reason, you can’t assume that the academics who’ve published on an issue are the ones you should listen to.

Now, Craig isn’t the best example, since the specific flavor of terrible that is his moral argument is unusual in philosophy. So instead, let me quote something I said in a blog post written more than a year ago about respected philosopher Lawrence BonJour (note that in retrospect, I think this post was the beginning of the end of my career as a philosophy grad student):

In his book on the subject, In Defense of Pure Reason, he surprisingly only devotes a couple of pages to what he calls his main arguments. This was accompanied by a bold declaration that his arguments are so obvious that he doesn’t understand why they haven’t been more influential. In the precis of the book he wrote for the Philosophy and Phenomenological Research symposium on it, he summarizes his arguments in a couple of paragraphs that don’t quite match the arguments presented in the original book, and finally in his response to criticisms made by contributors to the symposium, BonJour admits he didn’t initially have a clear idea of what he was trying to say.

Again, the trouble is that there’s no glory in pointing this out, while BonJour’s book manages to be fairly impressive in spite of the main arguments being muddled. Meaning, this is a case where “good arguments” and “will enhance a philosopher’s status” fail to correlate.

Though I’m less sure about this, I suspect the lack of any real consensus among philosophers explains some of the cliquishness of contemporary academic philosophy. Lack of agreement creates a vacuum to be filled by cliques that seem to think only their own opinion counts when determining the verdict of enlightened philosophical opinion. That, and showing you’re hip to this fad or that clique’s shibboleth is another way of showing cleverness.

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