From way the hell back in the archives: The silliness of philosophy

This post is from the last days of the blogspot incarnation of my blog, when I was a junior in college. I’m posting it mainly to show I had doubts about academic philosophy before I ever got to Notre Dame.

In Peter Unger’s Beyond Inanity, he makes a point of saying that the claims he’s attacking are guilty of being insubstantial, not silly. However, it strikes me that an awful lot of what gets done in philosophy is silly. I’ve even suggested that philosophy is so silly, that an obviously silly paper is actually an improvement over one that tries to hide its silliness.

What, exactly, is the problem? I can think of at least two things:

First, there’s a tendency to want to be rigorous, sophisticated, and scientific, and this leads philosophers to invent technical concepts and apply them in situations where they serve no purpose. Take, for example, the concept of a possible world. A possible world is basically a possible situation, except that its emphasized that it is a “maximal” situation, including or excluding every detail that the world might possibly have. Sometimes, it’s a useful concept. Sometimes you want to imagine a hypothetical world exactly like ours, except for a short list of very specific changes. Or sometimes, you want to imagine a world with a very small number of objects and nothing else. That’s all okay. (Or at least not as bad as what I want to complain about here.)

However, philosophers have fallen in love with the concept of possible worlds, and begin invoking the concept in situations where it’s useless or counter-productive. Situations where, most importantly, they aren’t really concerned to have every detail fixed. For example, last semester in philosophy of mind we encountered a theory of the relationship between mind and matter (I think it was called “global supervenience”) that was explained in terms of possible worlds. It turned out that an immediate consequence of the theory was that the position of a hydrogen atom in a distant galaxy might be vitally important in determining our mental states (thanks in part to possible worlds emphasizing the idea of every detail being fixed). And this is a theory which philosophers had seriously put forth. They never meant to say something so absurd, but did so because they got using technical concepts when they didn’t need them.

Another example in this problem is adequately summed up in the second quotation in this post. Basically: philosophers wasting a lot of time on the nature of a certain claim, when all that mattered is whether it’s true.

The other thing that’s silly about philosophy: philosophers taking themselves way to seriously. For example, in the metaphysics class I’m taking right now, we basically spent over a week discussing the transporters from Star Trek. This was done with minimal self-awareness and irony. Now, debates on Star Trek message board about what this or that piece of technology would really be like can get quite heated (or so I’ve heard). However, Trekkies are at least capable of keeping the MST3K mantra stuck somewhere in the back of their minds, even if it’s at the bottom of a chest in the attic of their brains, with the path to said chest blocked by a pile of lamps, coat hangers, and bicycles. The point is, it’s there, they know it’s just TV. In philosophy, however, there is no equivalent to the realization that it’s just TV. It’s serious business. And that makes all the discussions feel very off.

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  • Physicalist

    It turned out that an immediate consequence of the theory was that the position of a hydrogen atom in a distant galaxy might be vitally important in determining our mental states (thanks in part to possible worlds emphasizing the idea of every detail being fixed). And this is a theory which philosophers had seriously put forth.

    I strongly doubt this (and I work on arguments for dualism and physicalism that invoke possible worlds). I suspect that what was being discussed was a sufficient (but not necessary) criterion for a physicalist account of mental states.

    I doubt anyone thinks that global supervenience is really necessary for physicalism — the dualists (like Chalmers) just offer it as a “best case scenario” for the physicalist, and then respond to it. (I happen to think it’s a poisoned apple, but that’s another discussion.)

    Who are the philosophers of mind at ND now that Ramsey has left. Is Stubenberg still there?

    . . . all that mattered is whether it’s true.

    You’re going to have to do more than scoff to convince me that questions about possibility and necessity are irrelevant. Note that science typically cares an awful lot about whether something happens by accident or by necessity.

    And on the transporters: If what was being discussed was personal identity (or identity of objects), then I think it does make sense to get as clear as possible about what the thought experiment involves. The fiction is merely a tool for getting at the metaphysics. I doubt that even Merricks or van Inwagen care about the details of Star Trek as such; the real issues are questions of the application of our concepts (or of the metaphysical underpinnings of our world).

    • rayndeonx

      I think most philosophical questions of importance, if not all of them, are ultimately semantic debates. For instance, the problem of free will; I see much of that issue trying to adequately define free will in such a way that makes sense of our knowledge of the world and then asking the question of whether or not we have it. Ditto with the problem of consciousness. How we use language is central to the principal issues of philosophy, or so I see it.

      In general though, I remain skeptical of any philosophical claims that can establish the existence of some concrete object (hence my suspicion about philosophy of religion in general).

  • okstop

    This post shows deep misunderstanding of what philosophy even is, much less how it works. There’s clearly no point in debating it at length, but I’ll say two things.

    First, it’s arrogant – not to mention obviously unjustified – for you to assert that the philosopher in question when you were discussing global supervenience “never meant to say something so absurd…” It is part of the common procedure of philosophy to lay out all the logically possible positions. Before we can start narrowing down what positions seems to make more sense or have more going for them, we have to know the possible range of positions. This can be useful if the person describing a certain position does not critique it. Philosophy is, after all, a joint enterprise. I assure from personal experience alone, much less professional experience, that not every position described or even published by an academic philosopher is one he or she actually endorses.

    Second, your comments about the transporter cases (I’m certain I know the general gist of the discussion, having taught this issue a couple of times) reveal that you thoroughly missed the point. Using the example of the transporter is, like all thought-experiments, supposed to help us key in on which features of a situation are actually relevant to our judgments on various issues. They serve the same purpose that lab work serves for physical scientists – they isolate variables. That so many people are distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of being taken apart and reassembled even when assured of mental continuity suggests that there’s…

    Look. You took the class. Even if you didn’t see the point of the discussion, apparently you got enough of it to get into Notre Dame. The fact of the matter is that even if the result of a particular investigation doesn’t seem that interesting or relevant (are colors objectively real?), analytic philosophy is conducted in a manner similar to science, wherein individual results about narrow issues are often, on their own, useless, but can be taken in context with other “tiny” discoveries to paint a very interesting and informative picture.

    Also, the nature of the claim is incredibly important if you don’t know whether it’s true or not… which is generally the kind of thing that philosophy investigates – stuff where it’s really hard to get a handle on whether it is true or not. So we look at form. We first rule out the things that CAN’T be true, by virtue of being ill formed, then the things that are less likely to be true, by virtue of being unparsimonious, and then we take what’s left and see whether assuming them true causes any disruptions elsewhere, to positions that seem well-established. It’s as responsible and careful an approach as we can take to otherwise intractable questions. Can you point out to me what could be wrong about this approach? Can you offer an alternative?

    Or do you just feel like making unsubstantiated… and poorly argued… gripes about philosophy?

    • Chris Hallquist

      First, please understand that this is a four year old post re-posted largely for historical interest.

      On global supervenience: I think Physicalist may be correct that I misunderstood the intent (though I seem to remember my professor endorsing the absurd reading… if only we all had perfect memory so I could know for sure…)

      But on the teletransporter case, I understand perfectly the intended purpose. That didn’t stop me from having moments of, “really? Adults get paid to do this?” And I don’t see that that approach has led to much in the way of tiny discoveries (JTB is not knowledge, maybe, but even that’s been challenged.) And my lack of an alternative is irrelevant. Maybe no one knows how to answer certain questions.

    • daniellavine

      Chill out dude. OP made very clear that this is a rather old repost and may not reflect current opinions.

      That so many people are distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of being taken apart and reassembled even when assured of mental continuity suggests that there’s…

      It suggests that people are irrational, but since we already knew that people are irrational that’s not much of a philosophical insight. You can cut right through the “mental continuity” with some other thought experiments. Take last Thursdayism — it quite clearly demonstrates that one doesn’t directly experience mental continuity. Rather, one remembers mental continuity. And given the demonstrated flaws of human memory, the memory of continuity is nowhere close to a demonstration of continuity. Mental continuity is an illusion — a conclusion that anyone could come to through sheer introspection. I do not remember the vast majority of thoughts, emotions, and sensory data I’ve experienced today, and yet I do not have a sense of any gaps in consciousness. I know intellectually that there are experiences that occurred that I cannot remember, but I still have the memory — the sensation even — of mental continuity.

      Here’s a better thought experiment for mental continuity:
      Suppose you somehow find yourself subject of a preliminary experiment on transporter technology. Rather than take any risks with the destruction part, the technicians in charge of the experiment decide to use only the “copy” function of the teleporter. Let’s also say, for the sake of simplicity, that you are going to be under anesthesia through the process. So you’re put in the teleporter, anesthetics are pumped into your blood stream and then…

      …you wake up in the teleporter, groggy from the lingering anesthesia. The technicians told you in advance that the teleporter destination is physically identical in every perceivable way to the teleporter source. Furthermore, the building in which the experiment is taking place was cleverly designed so that leaving from the source would be perceptually identical to leaving from the destination.

      The question is, are you “you” or the “copy”? How can you tell? Is there any way the other “you” can tell? Presumably the investigators know, but let’s say they’re not telling. If you met the other “you” would the two of you be able to work out which was the original?

      Let’s complicate a little. You were never under anesthesia. You remember sitting there in the teleporter and then a bright flash of light…and you’re still sitting in the teleporter. Both you and your copy have memories of sitting in the teleporter, experiencing a bright flash of light, and then — again — sitting in the teleporter. (Neither one of you remembers not existing in the teleporter and then suddenly popping into existence, obviously.) Even in this scenario is there any way you can figure out which “you” is the copy?

      If you just suppose that mental continuity and identity are constructed from memory rather than supposing they are their own independent mental faculties the interpretation is straight-forward. It’s possible in principle for two distinct biological organisms to be the “same” person. (Obviously, as their experiences diverge they quickly cease to be the “same” person in some sense, although since they share all memories up to the point of copying there is still some sense in which they are the same person.)

      Of course, this perspective is completely mind-bending to pretty much everyone brought up under the “mind is magic” regime of Christendom. Even atheist philosophers either fail to get it or refuse to consider it (I can’t tell which because their counterarguments are inevitably “I don’t think you get what the teleporter thought experiment is about.” Of course I do, that’s the easy part. The hard part is seeing why it isn’t a problem because this requires understanding and really acknowledging that your mind is constantly lying to you.)

  • mnb0

    This reminds me of the debate about the amount of angels dancing on the top of a needle.