Why isn’t there more progress in philosophy?

Now that I’m done expressing my skepticism of Chalmers’ claims about progress in philosophy of mind, I want to look at the explanations he gives for why there hasn’t been more progress in philosophy. Here’s the first one:

(1) Powerless method. There is no convergence because philosophy does not have a method with the power to produce convergence. Mathematics has proof, the sciences have experiments, history has archival scholarship. In philosophy we mainly have argument. Arguments are a much less powerful method for producing convergence than the methods above. As suggested above, the primary reason for this seems to be that anyone who antecedently denies the conclusion of a philosophical argument can usually deny one of its premises without enormous costs. It is rare to find an argument for an important philosophical conclusion whose premises are all neutral ground. Even when some premises are relatively uncontroversial, as with premises from the sciences or formal premises, one almost always needs further contentious premises to reach a philosophically interesting conclusion. These premises are typically not hard for an opponent to reject. And even for agnostics, doubts about a conclusion tend to easily infect one’s confidence in a premise.

I think that this diagnosis helps to explain why convergence in philosophy is more difficult than convergence in other fields. But one would like a deeper explanation of just why philosophical argumentation on the big questions has the property discussed above. After all, argument sometimes produces convergence on smaller questions. And one would also like to know just where this leaves the possibility of philosophical knowledge.

The first paragraph seems right to me, indeed possibly the main explanation for why there isn’t more philosophy. But the second paragraph assumes there has been progress on the small questions, which I’m dubious of.

Chalmers’ second and third explanations are anti-realism (“there are no objective truths to be had in the relevant domains”) and verbal disputes. What he says about these questions strikes me as basically right: they explain some disputes, but it’s hard to claim they explain all of them, and there’s still the matter of explaining which disputes lack objectively true answers or are merely verbal in nature.

Fourth is sociological factors:

There is no convergence to the truth because although the problem
has been solved and some know the answers, sociological factors have kept others from agreeing. For example, perhaps others are professionally rewarded for disagreement, or are professionally or emotionally invested in alternative answers to the question. And in philosophy as opposed to science, the absence of proof and experimental falsification makes it much easier to keep a defeated research program alive.

I mostly agree with this, but for reasons I explain in my posts on the problems with philosophy, I think it’s worth emphasizing that the sociological factors wouldn’t be a problem if we had something like proof or experimental falsification in philosophy.

Here are Chalmers’ last three explanations:

(5) Unknowability. The problems are unsolvable in principle. While there are true answers to the questions, conclusive grounds for these answers are unavailable to rational thought, so the answers are not knowable. Even if we were superintelligent and superrational (as, perhaps, after the singularity), philosophers would disagree over the answers to these questions.

(6) Human inadequacy. There is no convergence to the truth because while the problems are solvable in principle, they are too hard to be solved by us (Colin McGinn’s view). Perhaps humans are not wired to do philosophy, or at least to answer the relevant philosophical questions conclusively. More intelligent beings might do better: perhaps after the singularity philosophers will have converged on the answers to all of our big questions.

(7) Current nonideality. There is no convergence to the truth because we are not yet reasoning as well as we can, or because we have not yet had insights that are within human grasp. The problems are solvable in principle, and are solvable by humans, but we have not yet gotten there. Perhaps new methods, more disciplined reasoning, or new empirical discoveries are required. There is a curve of increasing philosophical sophistication such that past a certain point on the curve, major progress is possible. We are not there yet, but we are working our way toward it.

Then Chalmers comments:

I think that most of these answers apply to some philosophical questions. I have argued elsewhere (especially in Constructing the World) that all truths are a priori entailed by certain fundamental empirical truths. So where there is a fact of the matter, ideal reasoning from the fundamental truths ought to get us there. Sometimes there is no fact of the matter, sometimes we have already gotten there but sociology and verbal disputes get in the way, and sometimes we need more empirical knowledge. But on the remaining hard cases the choice comes down to the last two options: solvable but not humanly solvable, or humanly solvable and merely unsolved.

When concluding that in some cases the answer must be one of the last two, Chalmers seems to skip over the “unkowability” option, which is unfortunate because it seems like just as important a possibility as the last two. In a way, you could see all of these last three options as variations on (1):

  • Maybe current methods are powerless, but no better methods are possible for anyone, human or otherwise.
  • Maybe current methods are powerless, and no better methods are possible for humans, but better methods are possible for some possible non-human beings.
  • Maybe current methods are powerless, but humans could find better methods.

Chalmers closes by urging optimism:

If we do not know which of these options is correct, I think that we have to assume that the last option describes our position. Philosophy is still young and we are still learning how to do it well. It might turn out that we are on the cusp of an answer, or it might not. All one can do is keep doing philosophy as well as one can and see where it leads. That is my own glass-half-full perspective on philosophical progress.

Now, I wouldn’t be working on applying to grad school unless I shared some of Chalmers’ optimism, but the claim that philosophy is young looks obviously false. It’s one of the oldest academic disciplines there is! You can question whether what contemporary philosophers are doing is really the same thing Aristotle was doing, but there’s no way you’re going to make, “philosophy has made less progress than physics because philosophy is younger than physics” come out true.

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  • eric

    It strikes me that there are historical/sociological reasons why there seems to be no progress in philosphy. Let’s say philosophers come up with some new analytical technique (call it A). ‘A’ proves very successful at solving a set of problems. What happens next? Well, A gets spun off into its own discipline. Universities form new departments of A so students can dive deeply into its minituae, rather than having to learn a lot of unrelated philosophy just to get a degree in A. Natural philosophy becomes science; philosopher Adam Smith invents modern economics, and so on.

    I think a good case can be made that philosophy created a
    lot of important spin-off disciplines in the past. But no one gets to rest on
    their laurels; even if this is the case, we can ask whether philosophy still
    spins off (or can be expected to spin off, in a stochastic but regular fashion)
    new techniques that are useful to humans. To make an analogy – it may be the
    wrong approach to try and measure this basic research area by applied research
    metrics (like inventions and patents). But we still have to ask the question: is
    this a basic research area that is still expected to yield a lot of applied
    research in the future? Or are there other basic research areas that, to the
    best of our limited and imperfect ability to assess, would be better to support?

    So, maybe ‘consensus conclusions’ is the wrong metric of success. Maybe philosophy’s contribution is in generating more fundamental and less quantifiable ‘new thought.’ But even if this is the case, we should still try and come up with some better measures of success – and we must still ask whether it compares favorably or unfavorably in comparison to other ‘new thought generating’ fields.

    Aside: the commenting box does not keep up with typying text. I find I can’t see the bottom of this post as I’m writing it. I used a work-around for this time (wrote it in
    Word, then cut & pasted), but still, it’s a very annoying and aggravating
    bug.


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