Chalmers on philosophical progress, part 1

In the comments on my post where I summarized the problems I see with philosophy, Alexander Johannesen very helpfully linked to a paper by David Chalmers on progress in philosophy. I hadn’t seen this paper before, so let’s have a look at it.

Chalmers says that, “There has not been large collective convergence to the truth on the big questions of philosophy.” He gives a tidy deductive argument for this conclusion, but the argument seems rather unnecessary; Chalmers treats the conclusion as fairly obvious to anyone familiar with the practice of philosophy. But he suggests that you could find progress by dropping some of the conditions from his statement. To paraphrase Chalmers:

  1. Maybe there’s been small collective progress on the big questions
  2. Maybe there’s been large progress on the big questions on the part of certain individuals or “subcommunities.”
  3. Maybe there’s been large collective progress on some small questions
  4. Maybe there’s been progress involving not convergence on truth, but understanding, exploration of possibilities, pedagogy, etc.

Chalmers then illustrates these points:

We can illustrate the options by examining a field I know well: the philosophy of mind. To reiterate the glass-half-full perspective for a moment: there has been enormous progress in this field, as there has been in every area of philosophy. In the last century alone, the field has been transformed, leading to tremendous understanding and sophistication that did not exist before. But this transformation has not been accompanied by a large degree of convergence on the big questions, such as the mind–body problem. Instead, progress has taken one of the four forms above. There has been large collective convergence on some smaller questions, large collective increases in understanding on all the questions, and perhaps reasonably large convergence on the big questions among various subcommunities. But across the philosophical community as a whole (and even across the analytic philosophy community as a whole), convergence on the big questions has at best been small.

I’m inclined to be skeptical of much of this. Maybe Chalmers is right about convergence on smaller questions, but I’ve seen claims like that before and none of the ones I’ve examined have stood up to scrutiny. My guess is the same would be true of supposed cases of increased understanding (indeed, it’s hard to see how increases in understanding could happen without progress on some small question or other).

Now, my knowledge of the relevant history isn’t as strong as I’d like, but I can agree that it’s at least plausible that there have been big changes in philosophy of mind in the last century and on the whole they’ve been in the right direction. But I wonder how much of that is just a response to advances in the science of the mind, and it seems like philosophical progress worthy of the name should come from within philosophy, rather than a result of philosophy being dragged along by science, social progress, or whatever.

I’d question the significance of convergence within subcommunities in a similar manner. How much of that could just be the result of sorting into cliques, or more efficient sorting into cliques?

Chalmers then goes on to give no fewer than seven possible explanations of the lack of philosophical progress. Since I find the task of discussing them all daunting, I’ll save that for another post.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Whatever progress there has been in the understanding of the mind in the last century or so comes from doing science, not from philosophizing.

  • http://Vexingquestions.wordpress.com Daniel

    Reginald,
    That’s a bit of a false dichotomy.

  • Bob Jase

    $10 says that lack of evidence to support positions is not one of his seven reason.

  • http://www.skepticink.com/humesapprentice Ryan

    Just as there is a method for doing science, there ought to be some type of method for doing philosophy. That could go a long way towards resolving disputes. I imagine that the only concern here would be whether we could get philosophers to agree on such a method and whether such a method would be used the same way by all people, but I feel that it could be done. What you would have to do is create a kind of checklist that asks whether a philosophical idea fits with logic, science, intuition, etc. and then compare it to its alternatives.

    • hf

      the only concern here would be whether we could get philosophers to agree

      That – and also, philosophy itself seems like an arbitrary socially-determined category. I don’t believe in any method for ‘doing philosophy’ aside from a method for thinking and acting in general.

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

        In my view, this comes from the fact that the method for solving a problem is something that must be argued for in philosophy, which isn’t the case for any other field I know of. Philosophy really is a generalist approach, which is why I like categorizing it by its main subject matter: concepts.

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

    But I wonder how much of that is just a response to advances in the science of the mind, and it seems like philosophical progress worthy of the name should come from within philosophy, rather than a result of philosophy being dragged along by science, social progress, or whatever.

    I think this depends on how it is done. If philosophy is reacting to examples science discovers and using them in the same way that it uses thought experiments, then the progress is indeed from within philosophy, and science just provides new examples or angles to explore. If philosophy is merely taking the conclusions whole cloth, then it wouldn’t be. But in my expereince when science gets into philosophy it is never direct, and always escorted by philosophical work.

    There’s an example on my blog of how philosophy is using empirical data to talk about ethics (the ‘Fearless Amoral” page). But in that, I don’t just take the empirical results and say “That’s what it means to be ethical”. Instead, I use psychopaths and autistics as examples to explore what it means for morality conceptually. Without the advances in science and psychology, the arguments couldn’t be made, but that doesn’t mean that they are scientific arguments instead of philosophical arguments.

    • Ray

      Interesting: On reading the “fearless amoral” page, I see little if anything that doesn’t just look like straight psychology.

      This brings to mind two thoughts:

      First, I think it may not be too far off to simply decide that philosophy should be treated as a branch of psychology. I seem to recall a post by Stephen Law, justifying philosophy using the famous “why does a mirror flip left and right, but not top and bottom?” question. He says that physics and optics will get the correct answer, regarding which axes are flipped, but it won’t get rid of that feeling of bewilderment. But resolving feelings of bewilderment by way of a verbal description has both the goals and methods of talk therapy, a technique whose efficacy is traditionally judged by way of the science of psychology. Of course this would suggest that philosophy lives at the less fundamental end of fields as arranged by purity. (http://xkcd.com/435/) This is not really where philosophy conceives of itself, but i might suggest that those philosophers who declare philosophy to be more fundamental than the sciences are making the same mistake as those who would claim that the engineers designing the LHC did more fundamental work than the physicists analyzing the data. (I might also suggest that mathematicians make the same mistake, but that’s a harder case to make if you’re going to phrase things in terms of purity.)

      My second thought, is the only thing that you seem to point out as being a philosophical problem in your “fearless amoral page” is “what does it mean to be ethical?” Phrased like this, it seems pretty clear that the “philosophical” part is a verbal dispute, in the terminology of Chalmers paper. But Chalmers seems to think that caring overmuch about how a verbal dispute is resolved, rather than just picking a definition and going with it, is a pathological state. One wonders what’s left of philosophy when we remove pathological verbal disputes, and areas of study that are better handled by the sciences. (I noticed that Chalmers claimed that many philosophical problems could not be plausibly analyzed as verbal disputes, but he never actually said which ones.)

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

        Interesting: On reading the “fearless amoral” page, I see little if anything that doesn’t just look like straight psychology.

        Well, I referenced that one specifically BECAUSE that one is far more tightly tied to psychology/science than other philosophical works, but to point out that I don’t simply take the results of psychology, but use those results as examples to explore the concepts. If you want more “pure” (heh) philosophy, the other papers on “Is Art Necessarily Aesthetic?”, “Phenomenal Experience and Cognitive Function” and “Science Versus Science” fit that bill. You might also want to check out the page on the Philosophical Method in case it might answer some of your questions.

        But you do seem to get the main purpose of that paper, and what is philosophical, at least to me:

        My second thought, is the only thing that you seem to point out as being a philosophical problem in your “fearless amoral page” is “what does it mean to be ethical?” Phrased like this, it seems pretty clear that the “philosophical” part is a verbal dispute, in the terminology of Chalmers paper. But Chalmers seems to think that caring overmuch about how a verbal dispute is resolved, rather than just picking a definition and going with it, is a pathological state.

        Well, it’s true that some disputes in philosophy might just be verbal disputes, but part of philosophy, to me, is figuring out when they’re verbal disputes and when they matter. For example, I claim to hold a dualist position about mind … but I’m not committed to an immaterial mind. I’m only committed to a mind that is not the brain. So fighting with someone over my “dualist” position is indeed simply a verbal dispute, because dualist technically implies an immaterial mind and yet I don’t hold it. So it would be better to simply put that clash aside and focus on my specific objections. On the other hand, I consider being conscious to be nothing more than having phenomenal experiences, while others claim that it is just being aware, implying that you could have that with or without phenomenal experiences. This is far more than a verbal dispute, but a dispute over the fundamental properties of what it means to be conscious. We can’t settle that by simply picking a definition, because the definition we pick might simply settle the question on one side or the other, and neither side will agree to having their position defined as being false without being convinced that their position is wrong.

        The same thing applies to the “What does it mean to be ethical?” question. The examinations I went through were to demonstrate that we should consider psychopaths to be amoral, autistics to be at least capable of morality, and then to point out what the difference is. Note that I had to conclude that it wasn’t at least functional empathy that was the distinction, because it seems that psychopaths have functional empathy while autistics at least are impaired in that. By which I concluded two things: to be moral, one must genuinely adopt the moral rules as guides to behaviour, and that Prinz’s philosophical contention that morality was about emotion was incorrect, or at least not correct in the way he wanted it to be correct. But I had to do the leg work, because while I would not accept Prinz’s definition that morals were emotion-based nor the definition that autistics were not capable of morality floated by De Vignemont and Frith, they would not accept my definitions either … and we all agree that the moral/conventional distinction matters for morality, which some may not accept. You can’t settle this just by coming to a definition, because the whole fight is over what definition to use or, more seriously, what morality, as a concept, really is. That’s why you need to do the analysis to demonstrate why you favour the view you favour, and try to convince others of it by taking their issues seriously and taking them on directly. I’ve found that most amateur philosophy avoids that, asserting their own positions but not taking the time to understand why their opponents think the way they do. Good philosophy means understanding the opposing viewpoints even if you don’t accept them.

        Prinz, BTW, in “The Emotional Construction of Morals” is VERY good at doing that; so much so that at times I was thinking “Okay, yeah, I get it, can you get on to making your own point again?”.

        Of course this would suggest that philosophy lives at the less fundamental end of fields as arranged by purity. (http://xkcd.com/435/) This is not really where philosophy conceives of itself, but i might suggest that those philosophers who declare philosophy to be more fundamental than the sciences are making the same mistake as those who would claim that the engineers designing the LHC did more fundamental work than the physicists analyzing the data.

        The xkcd scale seems to base it on a reductionist view, and gets a notion of “fundamental” out of that. However, reductionism itself is fairly controversial, and certainly isn’t how I view these systems. If I talk about science coming from philosophy, I don’t mean it in a sense that philosophy is somehow more fundamental than science or that science reduces to philosophy, because I think the two fields have different subject matters. I say that only to point out that science was originally philosophy and was split off on its own, which makes sense when you look at what I think are their relevant subject matters. Philosophy, to me, is concerned with concepts and conceptual analysis, and so less with the specific instances of the concepts in this world. But you can learn a lot about concepts by looking at the instances you know about. On the flip side, science wants to explain the instances in this world, but knowing the concepts that those instances are instances of allows science to group instances together and make generalizations. So while both care about the subject matter of the other, both of them use that to get to their own subject matter and are willing to sacrifice clarity of the others’ subject matter in the service of their own. So science will use rough-and-ready concepts that don’t generalize over all possible worlds if it makes figuring out the instances in this world easier for them, and philosophy will come up with a good conceptual analysis even if that leaves little room and provides little help to science figuring out how the instances in this world work (for example, if consciousness really is a first-person phenomena, then science will have a hard time dealing with it. Philosophy will not let that be an argument against it really being such a phenomena).

        So, I’d reclassify that purity line as a line moving from concern about instances to concern about concepts. On that scale, philosophy would be right alongside mathematics, and physics would still be where it is because it has a great concern for theoretical matters, and I think all of the rest work out.

        • Ray

          Well, it’s true that some disputes in philosophy might just be verbal disputes, but part of philosophy, to me, is figuring out when they’re verbal disputes and when they matter.

          These aren’t mutually exclusive. I think the 2006 dispute over the word “planet” was important, in that I think the definition they settled upon makes it easier to develop an intuition for solar system dynamics, but it was clearly nothing more nor less than a verbal dispute. (Notice the astronomers involved didn’t need philosophers to help them resolve the dispute, either.)

          I consider being conscious to be nothing more than having phenomenal experiences, while others claim that it is just being aware, implying that you could have that with or without phenomenal experiences. This is far more than a verbal dispute

          I suspect it’s even worse than a verbal dispute. Not only don’t you agree on the definition of “consciousness,” you probably don’t agree on the definition of “phenomenal experience” either, and you might not even agree what constitutes “awareness.”

          We can’t settle that by simply picking a definition, because the definition we pick might simply settle the question on one side or the other, and neither side will agree to having their position defined as being false without being convinced that their position is wrong.

          The two sides refuse to pick a definition, because picking a definition might settle the dispute? (and that isn’t even the least flattering paraphrase I could think of.) If that isn’t the very definition of a pathological verbal dispute, I would love to know what you think Chalmers was talking about there.

          So science will use rough-and-ready concepts that don’t generalize over all possible worlds if it makes figuring out the instances in this world easier for them, and philosophy will come up with a good conceptual analysis even if that leaves little room and provides little help to science figuring out how the instances in this world work

          What makes you think philosophical concepts generalize over all possible worlds, either? What makes you think you even know what you mean by “all possible worlds”? logically possible? metaphysically possible? which logic? which metaphysics? What makes you think that any rigorous attempt to speak about “all possible worlds” will succeed in avoiding the paradoxes that arise when mathematicians make the attempt to speak about “the set of all sets?” This smacks of pure philosophical hubris — scientists and mathematicians can at least demonstrate that their concepts work in this world, the philosophers have not demonstrated that their concepts work in any world whatsoever, and yet they claim these concepts apply to worlds that they can’t even agree upon the existence of.

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

            These aren’t mutually exclusive. I think the 2006 dispute over the word “planet” was important, in that I think the definition they settled upon makes it easier to develop an intuition for solar system dynamics, but it was clearly nothing more nor less than a verbal dispute. (Notice the astronomers involved didn’t need philosophers to help them resolve the dispute, either.)

            But there’s no reason to think that they have the right concept of planet, or are really describing that, as opposed to the conceptualization that, as you say, worked out neatly for science. As such, the dispute with the common usage of planet that included Pluto WAS just a verbal dispute; it really didn’t matter that much to science if the common definition of planet included Pluto as opposed to it being the “dwarf planet” that science wanted it to be. In short, it could have been a technical term that different fields used differently and really, not much would have changed. It’s only if you argue that what science was aiming for was the right concept that this gets important. And for that, you are at least doing philosophy, even if you don’t get philosophers involved.

            I suspect it’s even worse than a verbal dispute. Not only don’t you agree on the definition of “consciousness,” you probably don’t agree on the definition of “phenomenal experience” either, and you might not even agree what constitutes “awareness.”

            Which would make it far more than a verbal dispute, but a fundamental difference in view. Thus, we can’t settle it by simply picking a definition. So, you seem to be vigourously agreeing with me, here. Or else you were trying to make a point that I didn’t get.

            The two sides refuse to pick a definition, because picking a definition might settle the dispute? (and that isn’t even the least flattering paraphrase I could think of.) If that isn’t the very definition of a pathological verbal dispute, I would love to know what you think Chalmers was talking about there.

            The idea is that picking a definition will favour one side or another by stipulation, and so basically define one position as being right and one position as being wrong. Considering that both sides think their position right, you aren’t going to be able to just pick one, especially one that favours your position. You will have to demonstrate why your position is the correct one, and not just by saying that it’s useful, because they think theirs useful for their project. And philosophy is hesitant to accept a definition by majority rules, which science and mathematics are more willing to do. Philosophy wants the right definition more than the others. Why? Because in a real sense the definition that they are going for is indeed the properties of the concept, and philosophy really, really wants to get the right concept. Science doesn’t really care about the right concept overall, but the right conceptualization so that they can understand the instances in this world, so they can cheat a bit. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

            What makes you think philosophical concepts generalize over all possible worlds, either? What makes you think you even know what you mean by “all possible worlds”? logically possible? metaphysically possible? which logic? which metaphysics? What makes you think that any rigorous attempt to speak about “all possible worlds” will succeed in avoiding the paradoxes that arise when mathematicians make the attempt to speak about “the set of all sets?”

            The goal in philosophy is to capture concepts, and if you actually manage to capture the concepts then they apply in some way to all possible worlds, just by what being a concept is. Thus, all of these questions are questions that philosophy answers as it goes along, and questions that it HAS been answering as it goes along. So this just seems like something that requires more research, and there seems to be an odd presumption here that philosophy isn’t addressing these things. At best, you might establish that philosophy’s main goal is unattainable, but these questions aren’t going to do that.

            This smacks of pure philosophical hubris — scientists and mathematicians can at least demonstrate that their concepts work in this world, the philosophers have not demonstrated that their concepts work in any world whatsoever, and yet they claim these concepts apply to worlds that they can’t even agree upon the existence of.

            First, mathematicians don’t, in fact, demonstrate that their concepts work in this world, as they can and do invent mathematical systems and especially geometries that can’t possibly work in this world, and yet those are still valid mathematically. So all you can be saying here is that some of the results of mathematics and their systems apply to the instances in this one. Which is also true of philosophy, so that hardly makes mathematics superior in some way.

            Second, yes, of course scientists can demonstrate that their conceptualizations work in this world. That’s because, as I said, they choose them deliberately to do so. And that is not a problem; it’s what you’d want to do given their main goal or project. That is NOT, however, philosophy’s project. So it works for science, not so well for philosophy. There’s nothing wrong with that, because they have different subject matter. So your argument here smacks of criticizing philosophy because it isn’t interested — at least overall — in the same things science is, or of criticizing philosophers because they are looking for different things than you are. Neither are good.

            As for those worlds not existing, again you misunderstand the issue here. To talk about worlds existing or not is to talk about INSTANCES, which is not philosophy’s subject matter. So whether the worlds exist or not is irrelevant, only what it would mean for the concept in such a world matters. And thus even when you want to talk about the concepts “working” you run into the issue of having to understand that what it means to work in a world is different when you are talking about philosophy or about science, which makes the sorts of assertions you make rather difficult.

            Now, the main use of the philosophical method to daily life is when you get into areas that aren’t descriptive, and so are, for example, normative (although there are other cases, such as metaphysics). If you can’t describe the phenomena by simply looking at its instances, then science’s approach will fail, and philosophy’s will be the one that has a chance of working. And since things like morality are considered to be normative, that does make philosophy fairly important in those areas.

          • Ray

            The goal in philosophy is to capture concepts, and if you actually manage to capture the concepts then they apply in some way to all possible worlds, just by what being a concept is.

            This seems like a very contentious reading of what a concept is. In general usage a concept is something like an idea (i.e. a somewhat abstract way of describing what is going on inside of a person’s brain; not something that lives outside of the universe studied by physicists, biologists and psychologists. the dictionary seems to back me up here.) I doubt very much that most philosophers would agree with you that concepts, by their very definiton, apply to “all possible worlds.”

            mathematicians don’t, in fact, demonstrate that their concepts work in this world, as they can and do invent mathematical systems and especially geometries that can’t possibly work in this world, and yet those are still valid mathematically.

            All mathematics is, in principle, and much of the time in practice, machine verifiable. That is to say, mathematical validity can be, and often is, verified by physical experiments (using an apparatus based on the work of the physics nobel laureates of 1956 in fact.) These demonstrations are repeatable, highly reliable, and consistent with other methodologies, and they indubitably occur in this world, not in some hypothetical alternate reality.

            What you’re talking about is trying to replace the locally Minkowski geometry of current physical theory with a different geometry, and expecting the resulting physical theory to still describe the world. Of course that won’t work, but that’s an issue of physics, not mathematics; a description of how mathematical concepts can be used to represent the physical world is not generally considered to be part of mathematics, but rather part of physics.

            So your argument here smacks of criticizing philosophy because it isn’t interested — at least overall — in the same things science is, or of criticizing philosophers because they are looking for different things than you are

            This is not my criticism. My criticism isn’t that they are interested in different things than scientists, it is that they don’t have a clue what they are interested in, in the first place. They don’t know what problem they are trying to solve, they only think they do. (Although to be fair, I don’t think this applies to all philosophers, but it does seem to apply a great number of philosophers, and to you in particular, given your statements.)

            And thus even when you want to talk about the concepts “working” you run into the issue of having to understand that what it means to work in a world is different when you are talking about philosophy or about science, which makes the sorts of assertions you make rather difficult.

            First of all, you are the one who is attempting to justify the value of a discipline (philosophy) based on its purported ability to seek out concepts that work “in all possible worlds.” In order for this justification to have any weight, you need to assert that philosophical concepts do in fact work in all possible worlds, or at the very least that this is a meaningful goal for philosophy to have in formulating its concepts.

            Second of all, are you trying to tell me that all the philosophers agree what it means for a concept to work in all possible worlds? Because if not, the difficulty of these assertions is no greater for a scientist than a philosopher. If the fact that philosophers use this term differently from scientists is supposed to be a major impediment to saying anything about whether philosophical concepts work in all possible worlds, what of the fact that philosophers use this terminology differently from one another, and some, like Quine, doubt that such terminology is even coherent?

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