A summary of the problems I see with philosophy–and why I’m thinking of going back anyway

This is a post I’ve been struggling to write for awhile. It’s a response to a couple questions I got in the March open thread, one by someone who wanted to have a “link handy when I want to show people just how crappy (analytic) philosophy is,” while the other asked, “Since you spend a fair amount of trashing philosophy, I think it would be nice to have a post about the good things about philosophy.”

Being asked to provide the definitive link on something is kind of high-pressure, which is probably why I’ve been struggling to write this, so I’ve decided to just force myself to finally write the thing and whatever comes out will.

If this is going to be something people are going to be linking to and then other people are going to be coming to from all over, I should start by talking about my background. I am a former student in the philosophy PhD program at the University of Notre Dame, which I absolutely hated and dropped out of with my consolation masters after three semesters.

My most substantial retrospective on my experience at Notre Dame is probably what I wrote about half a year after leaving, which for convenience I’ll label retrospective part 1 and retrospective part 2.

Re-reading those posts, one of the biggest things that stands out is how I realized even big-name philosophers often produce arguments so awful that it’s hard to even say anything interesting about why they’re bad. In part 1, I describe coming to this realization with one of Laurence BonJour’s arguments, and in part 2 I describe coming to a similar realization involving Alvin Plantinga (who was Notre Dame’s star professor).

Before I go on, I need to note that by “philosophy,” I mean the main body of contemporary philosophy, which can be hard to define but needs to be distinguished from mathy or sciencey endeavors that sometimes overlap with the edges of philosophy. For example, when I took the required graduate-level logic class at Notre Dame, the class and the professor were both officially part of the philosophy department, but the prof stressed the very first day that it was really a math class, and one of my fellow grad students even told me that the prof was more mathematician than philosopher.

So when I talk about philosophy, I’m specifically not talking about the kind of stuff done by my former formal logic prof. That class was one of the few unambiguously positive experiences I had at Notre Dame, and I am fully aware of the value of formal logic (which includes things like being the basis for computers).

Given that, what’s wrong with philosophy? A big part of the problem is that nobody seems to know how to resolve any of the major disputes in philosophy. This is closely related to the fact that, as philosopher Peter van Inwagen once said, “philosophers do not agree about anything to speak of.”

Now, you may have heard some claims to the contrary, so if you want some hard evidence that van Inwagen is right, take a look at the PhilPapers survey, a major survey of the opinions of professional philosophers. Believe it or not, the existence of God turned out to be one of the least controversial questions.

In fact, the absolute least controversial question on the survey turned out to be the question of the external world. The leading opinion was “non-skeptical realism,” which basically says that there are in fact things like tables and chairs that exist independently of our minds, and we can know about them. Not very surprising.

But even on this question, only about 80% of the philosophers surveyed agreed on this seemingly obvious answer. Meaning that, if you sat five philosophers around a table, odds are one of them would have some doubts about whether we can really know there was a table there and it exists outside our minds.

Some philosophers will respond to this by claiming that while philosophers may not agree on the big issues, they’ve steadily made progress and found agreement on the little issues. While I can’t universally prove this is never the case, every such claim I’ve looked at has failed to stand up to scrutiny. I’ve made this point at greatest length in my multi-part review of Gary Gutting’s book What Philosophers Know part 1, part 2, and part 3.

Another response is to cite things like the current near-universal acceptance of things like democracy as evidence of philosophical progress. The best response I’ve read to this claim comes from an essay by Eric Dietrich titled, appropriately, “There Is No Progress in Philosophy,” which I’ve already quoted at some length in a post on Post-hoc rationalization among philosophers. Basically, the point is that with a few exceptions, philosophers have not led the charge on moral progress, and are still struggling to articulate why, say, slavery is morally wrong.

The total lack of agreement among philosophers on just about anything is problematic for a couple of reasons. For one, many people would like to be able to settle philosophical disputes by looking at what the experts say, an approach that can make perfect sense on issues where the experts genuinely are agreed. But for any given philosophical dispute, while there may be many philosophers who take a certain position, there will pretty much always be many other philosophers who disagree. It’s safe to assume that anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to pull a fast one.

Another problem, which I detailed in retrospective part 1, is that the lack of agreement on what good philosophy is makes it hard to filter the good philosophy and reward the philosophers who produce it.

And that’s some people respond to criticisms of philosophy by citing Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap, so it’s no big deal that 90% of philosophy is crap. The problem with this defense, as applied to philosophy, is that if 90% of science is crap, then science still does a pretty good job ultimately figuring out which stuff is the good stuff. The same cannot be said for philosophy.

In spite of these problems, can we at least still say there are benefits to studying philosophy? Well… it’s not clear.

In the post-hoc rationalization among philosophers post, I discuss a study done by philosophy Eric Schwitzgebel which found evidence that training in ethics doesn’t make you better at applying ethical principles consistently, but rather seems to make you better at, you guessed it, post-hoc rationalization. Schwitzgebel has done a fair amount of research like this, generally finding that studying ethics doesn’t make you more ethical.

Similarly, as I discuss here, philosophy students tend to do unusually well on their GREs, which some people have interpreted as philosophy making people better reasoners. But an alternative explanation is that smart people tend to be attracted for philosophy. Now, in that post, I discuss some ways philosophy might still be beneficial, but it’s not clear. See also this post.

In spite of all this, as I say in the title of the post, for roughly the past month and a half the possibility of going back to grad school for philosophy has been taking up an increasing amount of my time. Why on earth?

Well… you know what I said about Sturgeon’s Law? It’s because of that last 10%. Even if the filtering process isn’t very good, the last 10% is there. Nick Bostrom is my current Exhibit A here. Importantly, some of the questions Bostrom works on are extraordinarily important, like like predicting the behavior of a powerful AI. Such questions are also unconventional enough that we might actually be able to make progress on them. I hope.

And I’ll leave it there for now. Perhaps in the future I’ll expand that last paragraph into a post of its own.

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