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.

  • PhysicistDave


    I’ve really annoyed several philosophers (and a whole slew of non-philosophers who view themselves as noble defenders of philosophy!) by saying pretty much what you said here.

    I’d add a couple points:

    You wrote:

    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.

    Another serious possibility is that what GREs measure, and what the current educational system largely rewards outside of STEM subjects, is the ability to BS, and I say this as someone who had very high verbal SAT and GRE scores (indeed, my humanities grades in college helped pull my GPA up from a few unfortunate grades in physics classes!).

    E.g., if a student is assigned to write an essay on the theme of The Scarlet Letter and he replies with a single paragraph that says that Hester Prynne was an idiot for putting up with the harassment and that’s it, he is not likely to get a very good grade. But, write a long, rambling essay on what the book shows about Puritan attitudes towards women (even though Hawthorne was woefully inaccurate in his history) and the progress made since the seventeenth century, and you’ll probably do okay.

    Similarly, if you are assigned a term paper on the underlying intellectual themes of the Constitutional Convention, and you write a brief essay pointing out that the Convention grossly exceeded its legal mandate, was in fact an illegal coup d’etat, and was less about deep intellectual themes than a simple, raw grab for power, well… you’d better hope the instructor is a radical leftist who likes that sort of thing, or you may not do so well. (I say this as someone who is not a leftist of any sort, but is familiar with, e.g., Washington’s comment that the Convention was probably illegal.)

    Our schooling system, both K-12 and at the universities consists largely of figuring out what the instructor wants and providing it.

    You also wrote:

    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.

    It seems to me that part of the problem here is the inherent deficiencies of “argument” per se as a means of acquiring knowledge. As a physicist, I would be hard-pressed to come up with a significant number of arguments in physics that involve long chains of reasoning that have proven to be of value (excepting, of course, the chains of reasoning involved in mathematical analyses – and, even here, I have seen many physicists led astray by lengthy mathematical arguments).

    Deductive logic done correctly cannot lead from true premises to false conclusions. But (again outside of math), it seems to be rather rare for deductive logic alone to lead from true premises to interesting and important true conclusions. Logic alone (again excepting math) just does not seem to produce much of interest.

    Of course, few philosophical arguments really involve deductive logic alone. But, what they do commonly involve is huge leaps of reasoning that, for a time, somehow seem utterly compelling to quite a few philosophers, despite not being logically sound. And, then, a few decades later, the reasoning seems obviously invalid, and fashion moves on. We have seen this again and again in a little over a century – the dominance of “absolute Idealism,” logical positivism, the mid-century forms of analytic philosophy, etc.

    Empirically speaking, it seems obvious that human beings are not very good at figuring out the nature of reality by armchair theorizing.

    Of course, it is still true that some of the questions traditionally raised by philosophy – the nature of ethics, the mind-brain problem, the basic problem of how we acquire (semi-)reliable knowledge, etc. – are indeed important issues and, in any case, probably unavoidable. So, the raising of such questions will not and should not cease.

    And, since almost everyone – philosophers and non-philosophers alike – has been conditioned to believe that if such questions are legitimate, then these questions are properly dealt with by the failed techniques of philosophers, well, then perhaps the illness is incurable.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

    • JohnH

      “consists largely of figuring out what the instructor wants and providing it.”

      At one point early in college I wrote a term paper which I made absolutely certain was grammatically correct and otherwise perfect, excluding the fact that it fairly directly (but not explicitly) attacked the entire concept behind the class, the practices of the TA grading the class, and another required assignment in the class. I actually literally could have gotten a higher grade on it by turning in a blank sheet of paper with my name on it. It took me from an A to a C, so I appealed to the professor who gave me a B and informed me that it didn’t matter if the paper was correct it isn’t a good idea to write papers which in any way disagrees with the person doing the grading of the paper.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Um, the SAT and GREs are largely multiple choice. How does BSing help there?

      • PhysicistDave

        A third of the SAT is now the writing test.

        But, even in the old days, the verbal section of the SAT was largely about understanding subtle distinctions between the meaning of words, drawing not-so-obvious analogies, etc. That is not the sort of thing that is needed in STEM courses: on the contrary, the goal in tech courses is to be as clear, unnuanced, and unambiguous as possible. If your answer on a physics test lends itself to multiple interpretations, the grader is likely to interpret you down to an “F.” No matter how cleverly you argue for a wrong answer in a math class, it is still wrong.

        What makes the verbal SAT interesting and challenging is that the College Board succeeds in using a multiple-choice exam to determine students’ facility at verbal interpretation and manipulation.

        But, those are skills that are not so useful to tech people, which is why the typical math SAT score at Caltech, the premier tech school in the country, is so much higher than the verbal SAT score (I speak from direct personal knowledge: I was one of the few undergrads at Caltech whose verbal SAT was almost the same as my math SAT).


        • Chris Hallquist

          I’m not sure the analogies section of the SAT is testing anything useful, but being able to understand subtle distinctions is an important skill. Writing clearly is a virtue, but realistically you can’t expect everyone else to write with maximum clarity all the time, which is why finely-honed reading comprehension skills are important.

          • PhysicistDave

            Chris wrote:
            >…being able to understand subtle distinctions is an important skill.

            Well… English allows multiple shades of meaning due largely to the complex linguistic history of our language: bravery vs. courage vs. rashness, etc. We could argue about how useful such distinctions are in literature, history, philosophy, etc. But, in tech areas they are not a plus. For example, historically, the term “inertia” existed along with mass, momentum, etc. Mass and momentum are defined fairly unambiguously. But, inertia? You do not see much debate among physicists as to what the word “inertia” really means, and, indeed, you will not see it used all that often in technical texts nowadays.

            Chris also wrote:
            >Writing clearly is a virtue, but realistically you can’t expect everyone else to write with maximum clarity all the time, which is why finely-honed reading comprehension skills are important.

            Well, the problem, as you know and as many philosophers in the last century have themselves pointed out, is that much writing in the humanities is unclear because there is no real meaning behind it. All of us who were good students know how to string words together to fill up the page without really saying anything, and the famous online “post-modernism” generator demonstrates how this can be done with absolutely zero conscious intent.

            The very nature of many assignments in the humanities also illustrates my point:

            “I want a three-page (or 1500 word, or whatever) essay due Friday.” In tech classes, they do not tell you how many pages you must take to solve the problem: in fact, if you can brilliantly solve a complex problem in three lines instead of three pages, that is actually a plus. But, in humanities class, if you brilliantly encapsulate your thoughts in a mere 200 words when you were told to write 1500, your grade is going to suffer.

            Or “Write an essay showing how the issues in The Scarlet Letter apply to modern life.” If you merely turn in a sentence declaring that The Scarlet Letter is irrelevant to modern life, you will probably pay the price. (If anyone thinks that I really disliked The Scarlet Letter, they’re right, but I knew how to “play the game” and got an “A” in the class.)

            I know that humanities classes are not always 100 percent BS, and of course I realize that basic reading comprehension skills matter. But, I think that often the difference between a plumber and a Harvard student is not so much that the plumber cannot think as well about the real world as the Harvard student can, but rather that the Harvard student is much better at imitating the “post-modernism” generator – at least, that has been true of the Harvard students I have known.


  • Laurence

    I’m curious what you think about the process of interpreting data in science. The interpretation process in science is empirical to a degree (because you are dealing with data that is empirical), but there also seems to be a degree of pure theorizing in the interpretation as well. Some of the interpretations of empirical data sounds very similar to philosophy that I have read. Also, scientists can interpret data in ways that the data doesn’t seem to imply.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    And that’s some people respond to criticisms of philosophy…

    As much as I love being pedantic for no particular reason; if this is going to be a go-to link that gets referred to often, you may want to fix that clause.

  • MNb

    “The total lack of agreement among philosophers on just about anything is problematic”
    I disagree here. I think it’s a given, because philosophers by definition only can use deduction. As soon as they use induction as a method they enter the realm of science.
    1. “many people would like to …”
    Then that’s a pity for those many people. I have learned that I should be skeptical on my own views (there is a famous Feynman quote on this) and as such should not rely on any philosopher. That’s easier if they disagree with each other.
    2. “makes it hard to filter the good philosophy”
    I doubt if there is any standard that can be used as a filter. There is the Wikipedia list of logical fallacies of course, but I suppose that most philosophers are skilled enough to avoid that trap. If not other philosophers will be keen to identify those logical fallacies
    3. “The same cannot be said for philosophy.”
    That’s because science has developed such filters. But you shouldn’t forget that it were philosophers who identified these filters, formulated and criticized them.
    The moral of my story: just don’t expect too much.

    • Chris Hallquist

      My impression from hearing scientists talk is that scientists don’t actually rely on philosophy very much when sorting out good science from bad science.

      (Or at least, they don’t rely on what their colleagues in the philosophy department do all that much… PZ Myers talks about the importance of “philosophy” for science, but he’s not talking about what Alvin Plantinga does.)

    • MNb

      That’s not what I’m meant and I don’t think that’s what PZ means. Sorry if I was unclear. I was thinking of something like Popper’s falsifiability. Obviously scientists had already been using it for decades, but Popper was the one who indentified and formulated it. Subsequently others criticized it.
      If I understood him correctly this was also an important point of Russell’s History of Western Philosophy; anyhow it is what I took from the book. Philosophers aren’t so much original thinkers, ie coming up with all kinds of new and revolutionary insights. They rather reflect on what’s already happening. We could argue that even Craig in this respect is valuable. Just like Plantinga, Swinburne and Feser (yes, yuck) he reflects the wish of many believers to return to the good old days when they could easily maintain that science was not their (perceived or not) enemy, but another way to get access to their beloved god.
      Also note that these days quite some physicists also do philosophy. I think especially Sean Carroll a fine example.
      In short I’m not shocked to read that 90% of modern philosophy is bad. I just think that percentage always has been more or less the same. It wouldn’t surprise me if Russell in his historical overview just omitted about 90% of all western philosophers of the last 2500 years as well. Why suppose it would be better these days, given the very nature of philosophy?

  • staircaseghost

    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.”

    The fatality rate of patients entering the ER is substantially higher than the fatality rate of patients entering their ophthalmologist.

    From this, do you conclude that there is something structurally wrong with the way trauma surgeons are trained? That emergency medicine is “a diseased discipline”? That trauma surgeons should study carefully the norms and practices of ophthalmologists in order to reduce their fatality rates?

    Or do you not rather conclude that the subject matter of one discipline is intrinsically more difficult? That perhaps philosophy is what you do when you don’t know what questions to ask? That maybe philosophy therefore does not generate the kind of consensus seen in the sciences because philosophy is, well, not a science?

    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.

    The complaint here is purely scientistic. No one would dream of “settling disputes” of who the greatest violinist is by looking at what “experts say”. But this is precisely the problem of begging the question against philosophy as a humanism.

    I mostly agree with the related Sturgeon’s complaint you make, although the response I gave above can only go so far in answering it. The value of argumentative charity does tend to lead to persons with a bare minimum threshold of dialectical competence being taken seriously and treated as in some sense on all fours with everything else; (Philosophy of Religion, especially, seems to fall prey to this. Scandalously, it appears to be basically “natural theology + apologetics” at this point.)

    Aside from maybe less patience with “devil’s advocate” papers and attention to logically-possible lines of argument instead of plausible ones, I’m not sure what a solution would be.

    • Chris Hallquist

      “The fatality rate of patients entering the ER is substantially higher than the fatality rate of patients entering their ophthalmologist.”

      A better analogy, I think, would be medicine in the age before doctors had any idea how to help their patients.

      • Staircaseghost

        Once again, this simply begs the question scientistically in a very straightforward way.

        In order for lack of consensus to the degree found in (most) sciences to be a criticism, you must first establish that the subject matter is not something which is intrinsically less likely to generate consensus, and that being an “expert” in philosophy is more like being an “expert” in botany than being an “expert” concert violinist.

        • Chris Hallquist

          Well, I take for granted that the goal of philosophy is to seek the truth, not make pretty sounds. In that respect, at least, it seems clear that philosophy is more like botany than music.

          • MNb

            Well yes, but if even science doesn’t claim to establish the truth definitely, why would we demand it from philosophy which has lesser means available?

          • Staircaseghost

            Well, then you take for granted that the only thing worthy of that designation is whatever spiritual benefit we gain from deploying our shortest description length empirical models, which is — once again — to confess to scientism. Your complaint collapses into the whinge that philosophy is not as good at science as science is. Tautology lurks everywhere here.

            For those of us not On-The-Spectrum, there is much more to the human condition than the constant quest to improve of our capacities to predict and control the physical world, and this elementary observation is perfectly compatible with being a good scientifically-minded atheist. It is even compatible with the attitude that we do humanity the most good, all things considered, when we prioritize predicting and controlling over our other endeavours.

            But can you dismiss Crime and Punishment, or its progeny, Crimes and Misdemeanors, or Tarkovsky, or Duchamp, or Xenakis, as merely “making pretty sounds”? Surely, we can dismiss idiot iconoclasts who think these tell us anything which can trump the results of scientific inquiry, but just as surely, we cannot take as simply axiomatic that these particular modes of directing human attention are not something philosophy ought to have anything to speak about. Plato and Nietzsche and many more would beg to disagree.

            Here is another angle: isn’t the goal of botany to “seek the truth”? About plants? If so, you have not picked out any specifically distinguishing characteristic of philosophy. So you need to establish what the (alleged) subject matter of philosophy is, and contrast the relative ease with which one can gain new information about plants, with the ease one might expect when pursuing philosophical truth. Or one might conclude that philosophy as such has no subject matter, but is merely a therapeutic enterprise. Or any number of other approaches, all of which cannot be declared a priori, but must themselves be the result of philosophizing.

            One thing we can say philosophy is not, is the dogmatic intonation of beliefs and values already held before we started engaging in it. We already have Christians doing this in the most annoying fucking way possible; why should atheists jump on that bandwagon?

          • MNb

            @Scg: “making pretty sounds”
            Music is basically that indeed (and I love my music). It looks to me if you present a false dichotomy here. I don’t think CH argues that philosophy can’t say anything about music. It’s very possible to research something subjective with objective means.
            The real question is: what can philosophy say about music that say psychology can’t?

    • PhysicistDave

      staircaseghost wrote:

      Or do you not rather conclude that the subject matter of one discipline is intrinsically more difficult? That perhaps philosophy is what you do when you don’t know what questions to ask? That maybe philosophy therefore does not generate the kind of consensus seen in the sciences because philosophy is, well, not a science?

      Well, we have some interesting historical data on all this: There are a number of problems – the structure of matter, the development of individual organisms, the emergence of different kinds of organisms – that went pretty much nowhere when these problems were under the control of the philosophers. But, once they were handed over to scientists, who pursued radically different methods of attacking the problems, stupendous advances were made.

      This suggests that, at least in some cases, the failure is due less to the inherent intractability of the problems than to the innate futility of the methods employed by philosophy.


      • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

        This doesn’t seem to properly reflect what actually happened. It started out as philosophy and, for the most part, was pretty much done as philosophy (ie natural philosophy), starting out as and refining the methods that ended up defining the field as, in and of itself, science. And then a bunch of people started focusing on that directly and on the methods that, for the most part, philosophy had identified as being useful to study that sort of phenomena, while philosophy itself moved on to other questions that it found more interesting. It’s hardly fair, then, to say it went no-where when it was philosophy and advanced when it was science, because it isn’t clear when it STOPPED being philosophy in any interesting sense and it IS clear that without the philosophical basis science wouldn’t have even gotten off the ground.

      • Staircaseghost

        “Under the control of”? “Handed over to”? None of this rhetoric of some priesthood of dunderheads overcome by a modern science that sprang fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus bears any recognizable relationship to the historical record. If a Martian had visited the Mediterranean world in the late first millenium BC and asked to see “the scientists”, he would have been pointed to the Ionian philosophers. Only by an ahistorical gerrymandering can you get a picture of pointless flailing about all on one side of the divide and genuine creative insight on the other. Informed but probably wrong speculation is just what you get when your species hasn’t even invented zero yet, much less microscopy, calculus, a global network of biological sample gathering etc.

        Take Dennet’s (no namby-pamby antiscientific dunce, that one) contention that philosophy is what we do when we don’t know what questions to ask, or even have the vocabulary in which to ask them. This is inherently perspectival and time-relative and subject-matter-relative. So at any given time, under this view, philosophy is just whatever the most general questions are for which we lack any pre-manufactured method, so by definition we should not expect the kinds of results one gets when we already have a settled vocabulary and a settled method. And if this is the case for subject matter which eventually (it took the scientists thousands of years!) spins off as a science, a fortiori we should expect even less consensus where the subject matter is not amenable to being treated by science.

        Which is to say, neither you nor the OP have presented any reason we shouldn’t expect a lack of progress towards consensus within philosophy.

  • http://twitter.com/urbster1 urbster1

    The biggest, most important problem in philosophy is something that is routinely overlooked– philosophy of mathematics! Scientists invoke mathematics constantly and never account for the existence of the laws of mathematics and logic. Even worse, science and scientists generally believe that the laws from which deterministic patterns follow are in fact some kind of mathematical object or equation, and yet they cannot account for the ontological basis of these laws (laws of gravity, electromagnetism, strong/weak force, thermodynamics, causality, etc.). Elementary particles are described using wave equations, so it begs an obvious question: of what ontological status are these equations? Of course, if you ask a scientist, they will evade the question, but it is really more of a problem for philosophers than for scientists, and philosophers have manifestly failed to produce a reasonable ontology of mathematics (unless you know where to look). So, if I were to focus on philosophy, it would be to take a look at the basis of mathematics and the ontology of numbers, including zero, infinity, and negative and imaginary numbers, and I would pore through a lot of Leibniz, who understood that reality had to be based on zero and infinity, which led him to invent the infinitesimal calculus. (Of course it wasn’t until Abraham Robinson formulated a rigorous foundation of infinitesimals which vindicated Leibniz’s intuitions.)

    • MNb

      “Scientists invoke mathematics constantly and never account for the existence of the laws of mathematics and logic.”
      Now this is a philosophical problem that has been settled for centuries – since Euclides. Every skilled scientists knows that any conclusion is at best as valid as its presuppositions. Reject one of them (like Euclides’ fifth one or the idea that nothing can travel faster than light) and whole theories fall apart.
      As far as I understand it the whole debate on interpreting quantum mechanics, which has been going on for decades, is about its ontology. Also: what do you think the debate Huyens vs. Newton, ie waves vs. particles, which has lasted for almost 200 years, was about?

    • PhysicistDave

      urbster1 wrote:

      Scientists invoke mathematics constantly and never account for the existence of the laws of mathematics and logic. Even worse, science and scientists generally believe that the laws from which deterministic patterns follow are in fact some kind of mathematical object or equation, and yet they cannot account for the ontological basis of these laws

      As a theoretical physicist who routinely uses fairly advanced mathematics, I think your concern here is probably misguided.

      Mathematicians study possible structures, most of which are ultimately based on the simple structures of the counting numbers and empirical geometry: they have, of course, extended and refined the simple structures to an astounding degree.

      Pretty much all that we physicists are doing is supposing that nature itself might have some detailed structure built into it and that, perhaps, some of the possible, hypothetical structures explored by mathematicians might approximate the real structure of the natural world.

      “Approximate” is the important world here. We physicists take the structures invented by the mathematicians and then twist them and modify them as suits our needs: we do not constrain ourselves by the exact theorems developed by the mathematicians. A classic example is the so-called “Dirac delta function” which is not a function at all, but which we physicists made effective use of to the dismay of some mathematicians until the mathematician Laurent Schwartz put it on a solid mathematical footing (the “theory of distributions”).

      Quantum mechanics supposedly works with “Hilbert space,” but we routinely use “states” that are not in the Hilbert space: it works. We commonly assume that any function that we make use of has a Fourier transform, although the mathematicians can show that most functions do not: our attitude is that it all works in nature, so that nature somehow knows more than the mathematicians!

      So, it does not really matter what the “ontological status” of “mathematical entities” really is. All that matters is that the hypothetical structures created by the mathematicians often inspire us physicists to guess correctly what the (approximate) structures are that are actually instantiated in the natural world.


  • chicago dyke

    CH: i’ve enjoyed this blog and i feel a certain kinship with you, having just encountered your personal history today. hang tough, bro! the call of skool is strong in this weak sauce economy, i can understand that. blogging doesn’t put food on the table very often, amirite? ;-)

    i went with history, and i’m glad. history is very useful, once you’ve left the biz, in that it gave me the ability to cut thru the BS and get right to the point, history being filled with so many that (esp pro historians) ignore, obfuscate and misrepresent. but a mind clear and thoughtful can see the patterns easily, to wit: history may not “repeat itself” but it does rhyme.

    the history of philosophy is fascinating. before TV, before the arts were as developed as they are, hand in hand with religion, one of the oldest of the arts, is philosophy. people in power will always need those more articulate and aware and better with polemic and rhetoric than they are, to maintain wealth, power and/or control. so philosophy lives, and thrives!

    in our age it’s been pretty tricky for yall, i can see that. jargonspeak has infected so many fields, and at the same time it seems to me we’re at one of those ‘pivotal’ moments in history when a new practice will come to that field, and many others. my paying work has been in admissions, and i will tell you: “college” and the post-bacc. experience are changing, rapidly and violently. i often joke people of my generation are the last of our kind (HS 1998 PhD 2005).

    anyway, what i’m saying is that philosophy is going to have to once again “reinvent” itself. it won’t really, but it will find new revenue streams, new raison d’etre, new masters and proponents, new enemies to vilify and with whom philosophy will find its justification in an increasingly “technical” world. look at the rise of bioethics! an astounding paycheck, for an astounding field borne of the nightmarish combination of for-profit medicine and life-preserving technology in a post-Calvinist neofundamentalist society. no one could’ve predicted that, and for once, i’m not being sarcastic!

    you’re obviously on the edge of your field. go back, and your duty becomes to breath life into it, make it real again, for you do not any longer have the excuse of the coddling, comforting, pseudo-reality of the Academe protecting your intellectual development entire.

    what do you think philosophy should be, do, be for, and to whom should it be aimed? who should train in it, and why, and how? what is to be done with philosophy grads? how many should there be? answer these questions, while pricking the bubbles of the jargonistas who fail to understand that Scholasticism is dead, and you will succeed.

    best of luck, my friend.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I presume that if you go back to grad school, it wouldn’t be at Notre Dame. Where then?

    • Chris Hallquist

      Carnegie-Mellon is at the top of my list right now. They have a reputation for taking a very different approach from a lot of philosophy departments.

  • Scott

    When I took an epistemology class in college, the final project was to create an entirely new theory of epistemology. There wasn’t even much of an emphasis on how good it was – the novelty of it was the core criterion. I hope this is an isolated experience and not systemic to modern academic philosophy.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Yeah, that’s an isolated example. That’s a pretty weird final project by the standards of the classes I’ve taken.

  • Alexander Johannesen

    David Chalmers has an interesting paper on the problems of philosophy at http://consc.net/papers/progress.pdf

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    Well, let me start by saying that maybe you shouldn’t take philosophy, because you may not be well-suited for it in terms of what you want out of the program, which I think is supported by the fact that you dropped out of it once already because you didn’t like it. You might be better in a field like Cognitive Science — if you like Philosphy of Mind — because that will let you pick up a lot of the more practical applications and the things that give answers while still keeping in touch with the more conceptual and philosophical work.

    Now, on philosophy itself, I think it useful to compare it to mathematics and science. All of these formulate conceptual frameworks, all of which then have commitments, which people can find problematic. In mathematics, after arguing over those commitments for a while, ultimately a new system can be developed that avoids those commitments and the people who don’t like those commitments can then use that one. As long as they are clear what system they are using, there’s no real conflict. For example, if someone doesn’t like the fact that in Cantorian set theory the size of the set of even integers is the same as the size of the set of all integers, they can easily define a consistent system that avoids that and use it, as long as they are clear what theory they are using.

    In science, when the problematic or conflicting commitments end up being one of two sorts. Either they are empirically testable in principle, at whch point science goes out and tries to test them or, alternatively, they aren’t empirically testable at which point science calls them philosophical and passes them off to philosophy. Once you test the commitments, you know whether that framework works or needs to be updated or tossed out.

    So, in mathematics disagreements are settled by agreeing to disagree, while in science disagreements are settled by testing. But philosophy doesn’t have those options. The most interesting problems in philosophy share the abstractness of mathematics, and so can’t be empirically tested, but philosophers are all claiming to talk about the same things, and so can’t simply agree to disagree. This means that there generally will be more disagreements that aren’t settled, or are harder to settle, than in those other fields. But this makes sense if you consider the role of philosophy to be doing conceptual analysis, and striving for truths about concepts, about what things really mean.

    Now, going through the list of disagreements, what struck me about them is that if you look at them as a series of disagreements, it simply looks like there’s a split of “opinion”, but for me for almost all of them I could recall the problems that would cause one to lean to one side or another. What philosophy does well and is really making progress in is in highlighting the different problems and refining the various arguments. If you do philosophy right, you should be able to understand what problems there are with some theories that would make them prefer another, even if you don’t agree with that yourself. Where there is disagreement, there are significant problems with the theories that philosophers have pointed out and that cause them to reject that line … but, on the flip side, philosophers have also pointed out the problems in the positions they prefer, and that therefore work needs to be done to work it out properly.

    This is one reason why small problems in arguments aren’t that big a deal in philosophy. What’s of interest is the overall system, not necessarily the specific arguments or even problems with it. You are correct that in academics a paper that simply points out a flaw in an argument isn’t interesting enough to publish, but you also miss that in philosophy those small flaws aren’t that big a deal. They WILL get pointed out in papers that criticize the overall system by those who think that system doesn’t work, but for the most part either those arguments will be an attempt to resolve the deeper problems and so the reply will be that they still don’t resolve that problem, or else those arguments won’t be an attempt to resolve the deeper problems and so is only of tangential interest. This only makes sense considering how philosophy — particularly analytic philosophy — aims at concepts overall and less at the truth values of specific propositions, or things about the world.

    So, from this, we can see that in general philosophy really does aim at the harder problems — where we have less avenues available for test — and that it is a credit to it that there is so much disagreement, because it means that philosophers have done a good job of finding problematic commitments in the ideas which causes people to think that they just can’t be right.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Can you fill me in on cognitive science grad school programs? I’m confused by how that works in terms of the institutions of academia. I understand cognitive science as this interdisciplinary thing that incorporates stuff from philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, computer science and AI, all fields which I know stuff about in varying degrees, but I’m not sure what’s out there in terms of cognitive science programs that aren’t just programs in one of those things.

      By the way, people reading this thread, I’ve added a book on cognitive science to my Amazon wishlist of books I will review if people buy them for me. It’s expensive, but is anyone feeling generous here?

      • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

        I can only tell you about the program I have experience with, which is in Canada. You can apply to the graduate programs with a degree in any participating discipline. The coursework involves seminars in most of the participating disciplines, to get everyone up to speed on Cognitive Science as a whole (you almost certainly woudn’t have to take seminars in your areas of expertise). Then there’s an overall general seminar like a grad seminar with one or two interesting topics and then each student talking about their thesis work, and then the thesis work, which is standard. There might be a few more seminars in there somewhere. So if you have a real Cognitive Science program, it’s nothing at all like being a program in just one of the fields, because it talks about all of them, but focuses on the parts relevant to mind and cognition specifically.

        • Chris Hallquist

          How does your program do wit job placement? I don’t know about cognitive science, but in philosophy, PhDs are way overproduced, so it can be risky going to a program that isn’t highly ranked. If your program does do well with job placement (whether due to being highly ranked, or whether due to a better overall job market in cog sci), I love to talk with you more about it in e-mail. Google ID challquist.

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