Can you Cyrano de Bergerac your moral philosophy?

Can you Cyrano de Bergerac your moral philosophy? December 6, 2012

Yesterday, I linked to Luke Muelhauser’s commentary on the inability of philosophers to come to consensus.  He’s continued on the topic, proposing a curriculum for building better philosophers in “Train Philosophers with Pearl and Kahneman, not Plato and Kant.”

His list of recommended topics include Bayesian statistics, machine learning, mathematical logic, game theory, cognitive neuroscience, etc.  (Go to the link to see his syllabus).  When you look over all the prerequisites, you can see why Luke concludes, “I do think philosophy should be a Highly Advanced subject of study that requires lots of prior training in maths and the sciences, like string theory but hopefully more productive.”

Luke’s approach made for a really interesting contrast with a recent post on Just Thomism:

[T]he fact is that settled questions involve our indifference to finding out the answers for ourselves. To the extent that some question is settled, we’re usually uninterested in going back and seeing the arguments for it, even when the arguments are demonstrative. But philosophy deals with the sort of questions that individuals want to answer for themselves – even where philosophy has demonstrations to give it still has to give them entirely from the beginning to each person in each new generation. Fundamental questions about God or evil or human goodness or the human mind will never be settled simply because there is something inhuman in thinking we could settle them in such a way that subsequent generations would have to take our answers for granted as opposed to working out the whole problem from the beginning for themselves.

Philosophy can’t ever advance because the whole point of philosophy is that everyone gets to start at the beginning, so far as this is possible. There is still a role for discipleship and moving through a pre-determined order of questioning, and by my own lights there are even some pretty-much-settled philosophical questions, but ultimately philosophy is about getting to the bottom of things for yourself, and so it is not supposed to progress much farther than the progress that one person can make in his own lifetime.

And a commenter on LessWrong hit on a similar point:

[I]t would be greatly beneficial if science were kept secret. It would be wonderful if students had the opportunity to make scientific discoveries on their own, and being trained to think that way would greatly advance the rate of scientific progress. Making a scientific breakthrough would be something a practicing scientist would be used to, rather than something that happens once a generation, and so it would happen more reliably. Rather than having science textbooks, students could start with old (wrong) science textbooks or just looking at the world, and they’d have to make all their own mistakes along the way to see what making a breakthrough really involves.

This is how Philosophy is already taught! While many philosophers have opinions on what Philosophical questions have already been settled, they do not put forth their opinions straightforwardly to undergrads. Rather, students are expected to read the original works and figure out for themselves what’s wrong with them.

For example, students might learn about the debate between Realism and Nominalism, and then be expected to write a paper about which one they think is correct (or neither). Sure, we could just tell them the entire debate was confused, but then we won’t be training future philosophers in the same way we would like to train future scientists. The students should be able to work out for themselves what the problems were, so that they will be able to make philosophical breakthroughs in the future.

Part of what all these blockquotes are dancing around is whether it’s important for everyone to know how to practise philosophy, or whether we just need proficient philosophers to suss out the answers more efficiently and conclusively and then pass the answers back to us.  When NASA announces that they found perchlorates on Mars, I don’t double check their work or their interpretation.  I’m not levelled up enough to do that.

I don’t need to understand calculus to catch a ball (though as it happens, I’m better at the former than the latter).  I wouldn’t need do more than addition to be able to avoid being fleeced if all I had to do was make change, but, in an age of collateralized debt obligations, I either need to learn a lot about risk really fast, or I need to set up a pretty trustworthy, reliable gate keeper.  Since we have reason to suspect (for theological or purely empirical reasons) that our moral reasoning still has a few bugs to work out, don’t we need a class of philosopher-regulators?

But it’s a little weirder to say that I’m comfortable deferring my understanding of the good life to a class of academics, even Kahneman-reading academics.  First of all, as I mentioned when discussing Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman’s work can identify inconsistencies in our reasoning without telling us which element to jettison.  But the biggest objection isn’t that professional philosophers aren’t good enough at telling us the answers; it’s that we feel a particular duty to be fluent in these answers ourselves.

“You don’t need me after all? Ok, I’ll go work on some more quips”

But, no one (except sometimes me) says that learning math is necessary to build character.  Learning math is part of having a more accurate picture of the world, and that’s awesome.  But it doesn’t tell you what to do with your data.  That falls into the realm of practical wisdom (what Aristotle called phronesis).  And developing phronesis isn’t the kind of thing you want to outsource, anymore than you’d like to turn over your relationship with your spouse to a data-mining algorithm that was better than you at predicting what response in a conversation would make zer love you most.

A virtue ethicist wants to become the good person, not just look up what the good person would do and then do it.  That means we need to sharpen our moral perception just as we might strengthen muscles.  We can’t be like a student plugging formulas into a calculator without an idea of how they work conceptually.  Otherwise, we’re not becoming better people; we’re just giving up our moral agency.

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • “His list of recommended topics include Bayesian statistics, machine learning, mathematical logic, game theory, cognitive neuroscience, etc.” This makes me want to hide in my shoe closet and cry. Why couldn’t our public school curriculum have been more like that? “Here, kids. 5+5 = 10, rainbows are broken lightbeams, and an organic cell works [thusly]. Now let’s go apply that s— to modes of thought, reference all the fields back to one another, and tie a bow on it.”

    • leahlibresco

      The curriculum is definitely fun, no argument there.

  • Philosophy is not as rapidly progressive as natural science. The questions often do not lend themselves to definitive conclusions, and yes, in the past there have been limited methods for approaching some issues (and nat. science can help provide new info, Luke’s ideas are one approach and one worth taking). But philosophy does progress, especially its specific traditions. Aristotelianism has certainly progressed since Aristotle, as has Thomism since St. Thomas, and social contract theory since Hobbes and friends. The problem then boils down to something like which school is right? Aristotle or postmodernism? Now there just happens to be a philosopher who has addressed these questions, named Alasdair MacIntyre… _After Virtue_ and _Whose Justice? Which Rationality?_ both come to mind.

    Also natural science itself is a tradition and a branch of philosophy. It is Aristotelian, for one thing. Science has metaphysical underpinnings as well (like realism, rationality, orderliness, the value of knowledge, etc.), and the the fact that science works so well gives a measure of validation to those metaphysical underpinnings, which it happens to share with some forms of Christian theism.

    The traditions are in competition. They have not yet determined the winner and to a certain extent they have different criteria for what winning means. “Life is short and the art is long.” Don’t be impatient. May the best tradition win.

  • This still reminds me of Sola Scriptura. We can get rid of all the disputes if we use the right method. It never works. First of all, not everyone agrees the method suggested is the best one. Secondly, it is often still possible to get to different conclusions. Human reason just is not as good at finding truth as we think it is. It is good at leading us to conclusion we are very confident are true but when we compare them with other people’s conclusions we don’t get the consistency we expect.

    • I am reminded less of a Sola Scriptura approach to ultimate proscriptive truth, and more of a set of useful tools: like Jane McGonigal’s game-based activism. To me, it looks like Luke is making philosophy into a language and a tool-set that easily crosses the barriers not only of separate beliefs/faiths/whatevers, but also the barrier between…like…the meaning of life and actual practical action. (Sorry – my philosophical background is almost nil. I don’t know all the terms! 🙂 ) I think he means get our heads out of our rear ends, if you will, to nail down some empirically-sound principles of how we think, how things happen in real life, how systems interact, to (at the medium range) use this tool-set to help bring about desired outcomes based on generally accepted moral/ethical principles, and (at the wide range) try to theoretically reverse engineer the Universally Provable Best Principles, and maybe (at the small range) check our own beliefs and actions against a rational framework which does not claim to be infallible or complete, but at least has the advantage of reasonableness, coherence, testability, and connectivity to real world applications.
      As such, I think it’s really, incredibly exciting. 🙂

      • We have seen this movie before. It is part of the whole reason alone thing. We get reasoning wrong. Then someone comes along and says I can fix it. If you do reasoning my way then you will arrive at truth. It never works.

        Science works because reasoning is constantly corrected by experimental data. As soon as you leave experimental data or even get into social science where the data is not as solid then scholarship degrades into fashion. Ideas are adopted because they are trendy and everyone who is anyone is adopting them. They go in cycles. It just does not work.

        That is why the Catholic Church is such a great gift. It gives us a way to purify our reason when it comes to theology and morality. It is called the gift of infallibility. We just need to respect it like we respect hard scientific data. With both faith and reason acting as wings we can fly to otherwise unimaginable heights. With one wing we go nowhere.

      • Sola Scripture *is* a methodology.

        • It is. The point is that Sola means “only.” When your methodology says “only X” and X is not adequate then you are in trouble. You need to say “X done correctly.” But saying “X done correctly” is actually adding something to X. So you are no longer at Sola X. You are at Sola X+. But X+ is often not the primitive thing that works well in Sola slogans. Sola Ratio is more defensible than Sola Ration with Bayesian statistics. Sola Scriptura is more defensible than Sola Scriptura with the historical critical methodology. It brings out the arbitrariness of ideas and makes them sound silly.

  • LeRoi

    “But the biggest objection isn’t that professional philosophers aren’t good enough at telling us the answers; it’s that we feel a particular duty to be fluent in these answers ourselves.”
    You remember the old joke with Tonto and the Lone Ranger? They’re surrounded by Indians, and the Lone Ranger says, “We’re in a tight spot, old buddy!” And Tonto says: “Who’s ‘we’, paleface?”

    Likewise, I might ask, who’s this ‘we’ who feels duty-bound to be fluent in philosophy? Many folks in all walks of life, quite serious about their duties to others, nevertheless find philosophy mostly a waste of time. Others, like my (current) self, are happy to treat it as a branch of literature: a useful accident of our history, a potentially useful part of our culture for exploring new ways of thinking, feeling, imagining, relating.

    “Learning math is part of having a more accurate picture of the world”
    And here’s where I disagree with Luke. Science and maths have proven useful tools to us, but I don’t find it useful to think of them as providing the One Most Accurate Picture of What Really Is. So I don’t think philosophy should be judged on how often scientists and mathematicians cite to it – there’s simply no reason to make philosophy the servant of science, no reason to make one tool serve another, no reason to subordinate one area of our culture to another. We use them for different purposes.

    “A virtue ethicist wants to become the good person, not just look up what the good person would do and then do it.”
    Phronesis come first, and does all the hard work. Then teoria tidies up afterward.

  • Joe

    “A virtue ethicist wants to become the good person, not just look up what the good person would do and then do it.”

    This is what I like best about you Leah. A while back you mentioned that you converted form Deontology to Virtue Ethics. I had to look up the word deontology. When I thought about the difference between the two ways of approaching ethics and morality it was something of a revelation for me. I have always heard phrases like “Live the Spirt of the Rule” “Live the Spirit of the Gospel” and the classic “The Letter kills but the Spirit gives life” but full meaning of those (clichés?) never quite registered with me until I thought about the difference between Deontology and Virtue-ethics. Im not sure how a strict atheist empiricist can come up with an objective but still humane moral framework devoid of discipleship.

    • Joe

      I used to think not being a Pharisee meant not getting pissed of when others broke the rules.

    • I don’t think there is such a thing as an objective, humane moral framework. We live under the confines of a system that will exhibit moral paradoxes from time to time which appear to me to be quite inextricable. Go ahead and come up with a consistent approach to the Trolley Problem with discipleship or without.

      It appears to me that the only thing that discipleship does is make you feel like even though something looks superficially inhumane you can believe away its inhumanity by following the same God that seemed t encourage the Jesuits burn people at the stake for heresy.

  • M.

    The link about perchlorates on Mars goes to your login page.

    • leahlibresco


  • grok87

    “And developing phronesis isn’t the kind of thing you want to outsource, anymore than you’d like to turn over your relationship with your spouse to a data-mining algorithm that was better than you at predicting what response in a conversation would make zer love you most.”

    I’m not seeing the issue here. This sounds like a fantastic idea- how can this not already exist in our modern “Google” age?

  • I’m all for more formal methods being taught, but there are plenty of philosophers who study precisely the things on Meulhauser’s syllabus and we don’t see any magical consensus arising in those areas of philosophy; those areas exhibit exactly the same patterns as others, for the obvious reason that they are practiced by philosophers. It’s entirely a structural feature: professionally philosophy does not incentivize consensus; it does the opposite, in fact. Teach philosophers Bayesian statistics, you get exactly the sort of debates you get among philosophers who do a lot of work with Bayesian statistics — arguments about whether, for instance, Bayesian statistics requires a Bayesian epistemology or needs to be subsumed as part of a larger error-learning epistemology that sees Bayesian statistics as being useful only within a very limited and largely non-epistemic area. This, in fact, is exactly what has happened in the past thirty years: the major philosophical work in the area has been on two fronts: using Bayesian approaches to scientific reasoning to find problems in unexpected areas, and finding reasons to think that there are problems with Bayesian approaches to scientific reasoning themselves. This is what philosophers do. Teach philosophers set theory, you will get philosophers looking into whether there are things mereology actually does better. Teach philosophers formal epistemology, several distinct formal approaches will leap up, each intensively argued over. There are undeniably philosophers who highly value finding truth and coming to agreement over it; but professionally philosophy is not structured to find truth but to discover problems, and what’s most highly valued is the discovery of unexpected problems at higher levels of generalization. Consensus as such is not philosophically interesting; finding obstacles to consensus, reasons to think common assumptions wrong. To the extent that philosophers are even interested in consensus, it’s mostly consensus over whether X causes a genuine problem for Y, given some set of conditions. And it is, again, structural: it doesn’t magically go away if you change the curriculum. This is wishful thinking, and quite literally: it’s the idea that if you simply change what people think about, things that depend in part on the limitations of the available infrastructure and the incentive-structure of the community will suddenly transform to oblige, so that you get where you want to go. It is a kind of wishful thinking that seems extraordinarily common among the Less Wrong crowd. That, too, is structural; people at Less Wrong have a strong social incentive to build up the importance of what makes them look clever and tear down what they can’t look clever in; which is perhaps why most of the genuinely interesting stuff there is either by Yudkowsky himself, who actually enjoys a lot of the (to most people) tedious detail-work that refinement of the art of rationality actually requires, or by occasional commenters who are not invested in showing off with big schemes or wild generalizations. But it was heartening in looking at some of the comments that there are a few people here and there who see that this is one way in which the proposed solution is simply not adequate the actual problem it’s supposed to be solving. If you were to start out with the assumption that the point of physics as a profession is to deliver normative claims, you’d come to the conclusion that it was a diseased discipline, too, for the obvious reason that this is not, in fact, how the profession of physics is set up. You can’t impose arbitrary teleologies on professions, dictating to them their goals and castigating them when they don’t fit your mental picture of what they should be; you have to look at what the professions are actually doing, and see how it could be done better, or more usefully, or whatever happens to be relevant, or else you have to work toward completely transforming the actual profession, given its actual structures and incentives, into something else, infrastructurally and socially, and not dilly-dally with things like curricula.

    In any case, just to play the game, I see Muelhauser’s book list and raise him a better one (highly formal, but which does not require pretending that every idea worth having was invented by Baby Boomers and Generation X or that somehow all philosophers currently existing are complete incompetents):

    David Corfield, The Philosophy of Real Mathematics
    F. William Lawvere and Stephen H. Schanuel, Conceptual Mathematics
    Deborah Mayo, Error and the Growth of Experimental Knowledge
    Catarina Dutilh Novaes, Formalizing Medieval Logical Theories
    Achille Varzi and Roberto Casati, Holes and Other Superficialities
    Johan van Benthem, Modal Logic for Open Minds

    Of course, in reality, as the comment quoted in the post points out, we teach undergraduates pons asinorum kinds of set-pieces. It’s not that you need to know Plato in particular or Kant in particular, although that would be a monumental level of ignorance for understanding what professional philosophers actually do, and (given that we owe the Big Questions to people like Plato and Kant would at least raise questions about whether you even grasp what the Big Questions actually are), but if you can’t even figure out the structure of Plato’s Republic or get at least a basic idea of the implications of Kant’s use of the antinomies, or anything of the sort when presented to one, then the notion that you would really be able to say much of interest on the Big Questions seems pretty unlikely, and maybe even a teensy-bit delusional.

    • Sorry for the typos; a problem when the comment turns out longer than you expected.

    • Friggin’ awesome.

  • Alexander Anderson

    Wow. That first read was… Hardly tolerable. Did he really call Artistotle ignorant? Did he really suggest that we have nothing to learn from Plato? Much of the rest of the post is a strange attempt to limit philosophy to the empirically quantifiable, which is ridiculous, as it already assumes tons of things, epistemologically and metaphysically.

    Bayesian statistics and the other things mentioned are like logic, they are tools. Your output depends on your input and your assumptions. If you aren’t inputting real world, (or all of the real world) you won’t output the real world. (or all of the real world) Setting something like that up as the end-all, be-all method in philosophy not only won’t get you consensus (because you will have different inputs) it comes dangerously close to being unable to prove the very methods it stands on. You’d need some sort of meta-philosophy to tell you why your philosophical methods work.

    • Val

      “Did he really call Artistotle ignorant?”

      You mean this?

      “Please move to the history department. Philosophy is supposed to be an inquiry into how reality works, not a collection of musings about the possible meaning of ancient, ignorant writings.”

      Not sure I see the objection. Aristotle was an interesting synthetic thinker but a lot of his conceptions of actual things were just flat wrong.

      • Alexander Anderson

        The fact that Aristotle didn’t know modern physics (for reasons that should be obvious) is no reason at all to reject him or to avoid studying him. Any more than Isaac Newton’s erroneous beliefs about alchemy or about space and time would be reason to stop studying his laws of motion. Fact is, there’s plenty in Aristotle that hasn’t been discredited, by empirical evidence or otherwise. That means he is still someone worth studying. (On another note, even Aristotle’s discredited physics might be worth studying, even for aspiring scientists. It might be valuable to gain the skill of thinking in a different paradigm than the one they are used to.)

      • Irenist

        Feser’s Last Superstition contains a good account of why, however understandably flawed his physics, Aristotle’s entirely distinct metaphysics, with its conception of the four causes, far from being a mere historical curiosity, is actually the best framework through which to solve the Mind/Body problems that modern mechanistic naturalism gets itself tangled up in. (Although it’s Feser, so you have to wade through a bunch of G.O.P.-inflected homophobia. On behalf of my fellow Aristotelian-Thomists and fellow Catholics–sorry about that.)
        Alasdair MacIntyre is a good source on why the virtue ethics pioneered by Aristotle and adopted by Leah, me, and the whole Thomist tradition, is probably the right way to go. After Virtue is the book to start with.
        TL;DR: Aristotle’s physics was bunk. But his metaphysics and ethics still have the power to change your life.

        • Ray

          “however understandably flawed his physics, Aristotle’s entirely distinct metaphysics, with its conception of the four causes, far from being a mere historical curiosity, is actually the best framework through which to solve the Mind/Body problems that modern mechanistic naturalism gets itself tangled up in.”

          I’m not sure how Feser thinks he’s drawing this line, but if it’s based on the titles of the Aristotelian works, Aquinas quotes the Physics at least as often as the Metaphysics in the Summa Theologiae, and I don’t think Feser is trying to back away from defending the Summa.

          • Irenist

            He’s not defending the physics or the astronomy in Aquinas, no.

          • Ray

            How does Feser decide which claims are physical and which are metaphysical?

            It can’t just be whether it appears in “Physics” or “Metaphysics,” because he needs claims in Physics to support things like the prohibition against infinite regresses in the first three of the five ways. (See e.g. the many citations of Aristotle’s Physics in Summa Contra Gentiles Chapter 13.)

            Likewise, a lot of the more controversial parts of Aristotle’s metaphysics, like the irreducibility of final causation, are also integral to Aristotle’s Physics — and in fact he uses it to argue against Empedocles’s ideas which we now recognize as an early form of the *correct* theory of natural selection (Physics Book II part 8.)

            So it seems to me that what Feser is doing is simply using the term “physics” to refer to anything in Aristotle’s Physics or Metaphysics that has been falsified and “metaphysics” to refer to the rest. If so, this is blatant goal post moving. If not, can you please tell me how Feser decides which is which?

          • Irenist

            Don’t know what Feser means, exactly. To me it reads like Feser is defending those of Aristotle’s claims that fall within what we moderns call metaphysics/ontology, and not trying to argue for, e.g., the four elements over the periodic table, or geocentrism over heliocentrism. I’m not sure how you’d see that as goal-post moving, given that Feser’s project is defend to hylomorphic dualism and classical theism, not to defend the proposition that Aristotle and Aquinas were always right about everything.

          • Ray

            There are two ways this is goalpost moving:

            1) In the context of the present discussion: The claim that Aristotle is worth reading is severely weakened if we find that those statements which have merit are interspersed with patently false statements with no easy heuristic to tell which is which. This is especially problematic because modern philosophy does not have a clear and agreed demarcation between metaphysics/ontology and the sciences. Indeed the first sentence of the Stanford Encyclopedia article on metaphysics is the rather unhelpful statement “It is not easy to say what metaphysics is.”

            2)If you are trying to reason from what you take to be the premises of Aristotelian or Thomistic metaphysics, there is still an interpretational issue:

            For example, Aquinas’s claim that a hand moving a stick moving a stone was a “per se ordered causal sequence” certainly looks like it implies that the cessation of motion of the hand is simultaneous with the cessation of motion of the stone, which we now no to be incorrect. Feser tends to reject this interpretation, but one wonders whether he does so merely because it would render the premises he needs to prove Classical Theism false. Likewise, many earlier philosophers have taken Aristotelian premises regarding teleology as ruling out any form of natural selection. They have taken the same premises Aristotle uses to rule out infinite regresses of causes as ruling out the law of inertia (since it allows a finite cause to produce an infinite amount of motion.) And, Aristotelian premises regarding form and telos are at least intuitively linked to such vitalistic premises as those of Luigi Galvani, who did not believe the electrochemical processes he observed in animal tissue could be duplicated outside the body — Volta proved him wrong on that one. Feser of course denies all of these implications as well.

            So Feser can retain his claim that Aristotelian premises have not been shown to be false, but only at the cost of weakening them to the point that they can pretty much only be used for the handful of conclusions Feser wants to reach, and nothing more.

        • Val

          Irenist, can you post your email here or shall I ask Leah to act as an intermediary for a private contact exchange? If you would be willing, that is.

      • Qmwne

        A crucial part of work in philosophy is looking at how the philosophical territory is staked out and seeing how some beliefs may contradict or complement others. And it was guys like Aristotle and Kant who helped define what the philosophical positions are. Even today, there’s valuable work being done in history of philosophy – like Martha Nussbaum and Hilary Putnam’s article “Changing Aristotle’s Mind,” which defends an Aristotelian view of the mind – that can complement the sciences. Similarly, I remember reading an interview with John Haldane lately in which he remarked that many of the skeptical conclusions Hume reached were anticipated (and refuted!) by medieval philosophers well before Hume was born.

        But my main problem with an ahistorical approach to philosophy is that by not being reflexive and analyzing where your fundamental premises come from (and what the alternatives are), you subject yourself to a lot of error.

        • Ismael

          @ Ray

          Feser dedicated a part of TLS to criticisms like yours. It’s called “It’s the moon, stupid!”.
          When the wise main points at the moon, the fool only sees the finger… and indeed this is your case and the case of many ‘modern critics’ these days.
          You completely misunderstand Feser’s points… he also dedicated several blog posts debunking the errors of the very same kind of straw man arguments you make.

          1- Muddled metaphysics: Feser points out that while modern philosophy made advances in logic and analysis of language, etc… it went two step backwards in metaphysics. Only because ‘the moderns’ made a mess out of metaphysics even to the point they cannot define it properly, is irrelevant to whet Aristotle and indeed Aquinas thought.

          2- physics vs metaphysics: In lame terms I would say Feser sees physics as what can be investigated through ‘empirical research’ and metaphysics is the methodical and logical investigation of what cannot be investigated through empirical research. I think Aquinas had a similar view (although empiricism was not defined at the time, but there were concepts that came close to it)

          3- The Hand-Stick-Stone example (HSS): YOU MISS THE POINT. Look at the moon not the finger.
          The HSS example is there to illustrate a point. Just like when you push a stick with your hand and the stick moves a stone and when you stop pushing the stick also the stone stops, so is “causation per se” i.e. if A causes B and B causes C… all till Z, if A stops causing B also C to Z cease existing.
          The POINT is NOT about the inertia of the stone or friction. That is just a VISUAL EXAMPLE.
          It’s like SHRODINGER’S CAT.
          OF COURSE Shrodinger’s cat is not a ‘undead zombie’ in the box… it’s JUST A VISUAL EXAMPLE. Duh! Quantum mechanics is not ‘false’ because cats that are both alive and dead at the same time do not exists… the same goes with the HSS example. It’s a VISUALIZATION, a picture to explain a point.
          Got it? Or are you still looking at the finger while people point at the moon?!

          4 – “And, Aristotelian premises regarding form and telos are at least intuitively linked to such vitalistic premises as those of Luigi Galvani, who did not believe the electrochemical processes he observed in animal tissue could be duplicated outside the body — Volta proved him wrong on that one. Feser of course denies all of these implications as well.”
          Here again… it’s the moon, not the finger. Because Aristotle uses some outdated notions to make an example of his theories of the telos it does not invalidate the Telos but it means a better example to explain it is needed.
          Feser is NOT denying any of this. He does not claim Aristotle or Aquinas always made good ‘physical’ examples when explaining their metaphysics. No he explains, indeed, that even if such examples are sometimes flawed their metaphysical reasoning is
          a- still valid (he was not ‘always wrong’ as some people assume)
          b- compatible with modern science.

          5- “”So Feser can retain his claim that Aristotelian premises have not been shown to be false, but only at the cost of weakening them to the point that they can pretty much only be used for the handful of conclusions Feser wants to reach, and nothing more.””
          Not at all. You are completely misreading what Feser claims. Feser is not claiming Aristotle’s physical premises are always correct. Feser shows that certain key points of Aristotle metaphysics are founded on SOME correct premises that still hold and that the reasoning is sound.

          I think you should try to read Feser’s blog (and if you did do it understanding what he says, not making up your own straw man as you go along) and The Last Superstition and Aquinas.
          Remember it’s about the moon, not the finger.

  • Benjamin

    We do want to do philosophy because we want to improve ourselves. I totally agree.

    So if we are arguing that being a better philosopher makes us a better person, then what if being good at math makes us a better philosopher?

    After all, Russel was a mathematician, Wittegenstein and engineer, Dennet a cognitive scientist. It seems like good scientists and mathematicians make for good philosophers. It seems clear that the good philosopher should stay up to date on the current theories in one’s philosophical branch and the sciences that correspond to that branch.

    Let’s recall that we want to do philosophy to be a good person, not to feel like a good person (hence we have to go at our problems with the objective of solving, not solely for soaking in the feeling of profundity we get after we write a good paper). So if it is the case that being fluent in Bayes and Kahnmen would make us a better philosophers (and I don’t see how it couldn’t) then we are obligated to learn these things. Provided we are obligated to be better persons.

  • We can’t be like a student plugging formulas into a calculator without an idea of how they work conceptually. Otherwise, we’re not becoming better people; we’re just giving up our moral agency.

    I’m struggling to find a way to phrase this that won’t come out like trolling, so I guess I’ll just go for it- isn’t this exactly what Catholics do? In particular you, Leah, in your abdication of your earlier positions on sexual ethics?

    I understand that in Catholicism, theology of the body is a fairly expansive framework, so I suppose you could argue that you are actively trying to figure out how it works conceptually. But it seems to me that any time an Authority source directs you to believe something and then you have to go about reverse engineering a reason to agree with it, you’ve lost the ability to claim it as anything other than giving up your moral agency.

    Obviously this isn’t specific to Catholicism- any religion or world view where the Authority has moral precedence over the individual believer’s moral inclinations will have the same problem. For example, I have many friends who’s Sola Scriptura approach to Protestantism has them believing all kinds of wacky things about science, history, and society, specifically because they’ve abdicated their agency in questions about reality.

    • leahlibresco

      No, more like the authority tells you something and then you say, “I don’t understand, please explain it more slowly and in depth.” And sometimes the student’s question does overturn/reframe/expose a new facet of the old wisdom, but most of the time it doesn’t, so you move slowly before asking for the phone number of the President of Physics.

      W/r/t queerness and gender, I’m doing a lot of talking and reading off-blog, but I haven’t had something super-insightful or interesting to share. I liked Love and Responsibility, but it turned out to be a lot about marriage as pedagogy — which I totally endorse, but in my mind is orthogonal to sex or sexual attraction.

      I’m basically trying to fill in the gaps from both ends, since I don’t see any reason to exclude same-sex couples from marriage as the permanent adoption into your family, contract on your future self, partnership in growing in virtue model that I usually talk about. But that model doesn’t really have anything to say about eros which I’m told is fairly important! So, both the RCC and the LGBT movement think my idea of what marriage is is incomplete, and I’m trying to understand why.

      • Val

        “So, both the RCC and the LGBT movement think my idea of what marriage is is incomplete…”

        During the arguments on this blog we are continually informed that individual Catholics are not The Church. By the same token, individual LGBT people are not The Movement, and many of us actually have a pretty strong commitment to marriage in exactly the way you just described it.

        And yeah, the right to eros too, which we and the RCC will never come to terms on, especially as long as actual social policy is in question.

        • leahlibresco

          I meant that my LGB friends tend to find the insufficiency as my leaving eros as peripheral, not the endless committment, Odysseus at the mast part. The RCC and the general queer consensus have the same problem with the way I conceptualize marriage. They just differ on the implications. Sorry, the ambiguity was my fault there.

          • Val

            I’m not sure it was ambiguous. I may have stated my own position badly.

            Personally, I’m all for companionate marriage… as are many other LGBT people I know. The difference is that where the RCC might say “fine… be as companionate as you like, just don’t put that, there,” my own response is “bosh… we have the privilege by virtue of this companionship to put what wherever we agree to, whether we’re actually concerned with doing so or not.”

        • Irenist


          And yeah, the right to eros too, which we and the RCC will never come to terms on, especially as long as actual social policy is in question.

          I think that’s a really legitimate complaint against the RCC. I find our accounts of how a certain kind of heteronormative chastity best contributes to human flourishing pretty persuasive on Aristotelian (there he is again) Natural Law (roughly, “follow your telos to the well-ordered bliss of virtue”) grounds, but absent a mass public conversion to the metaphysics I find plausible, I don’t really see how defensible those grounds are in the secular public square. (And I find the “New Natural Law” efforts of Grisez, George, et. al. to reach the approved conclusion without the old-fangled metaphysics that compels it to be conceptually confused, although smarter people than me seem to like it.) But if the grounds aren’t defensible in the secular public square, then maybe the most Christian thing we can do is to leave non-Catholics (particularly gay non-Catholics) untroubled by us to pursue happiness in their own informed, consensual adult way. Meanwhile, with all the time left over from not lobbying the government to legislate our (IMHO correct) morality, we can work on becoming the sort of happy, generous, fully alive people that might attract rather than repel non-Catholics.

          The rest of this goes out more to my fellow Catholics:
          Since I’ve been quoting lots of the Summa around here, I’d be interested to know what my fellow Catholics think of whether my point above is supported by this (admittedly lengthy) quotation from the Prima Secunda:

          Article 2. Whether it belongs to the human law to repress all vices?

          Objection 1. It would seem that it belongs to human law to repress all vices. For Isidore says (Etym. v, 20) that “laws were made in order that, in fear thereof, man’s audacity might be held in check.” But it would not be held in check sufficiently, unless all evils were repressed by law. Therefore human laws should repress all evils.

          Objection 2. Further, the intention of the lawgiver is to make the citizens virtuous. But a man cannot be virtuous unless he forbear from all kinds of vice. Therefore it belongs to human law to repress all vices.

          Objection 3. Further, human law is derived from the natural law, as stated above (Question 95, Article 2). But all vices are contrary to the law of nature. Therefore human law should repress all vices.

          On the contrary, We read in De Lib. Arb. i, 5: “It seems to me that the law which is written for the governing of the people rightly permits these things, and that Divine providence punishes them.” But Divine providence punishes nothing but vices. Therefore human law rightly allows some vices, by not repressing them.

          I answer that, As stated above (90, A1,2), law is framed as a rule or measure of human acts. Now a measure should be homogeneous with that which it measures, as stated in Metaph. x, text. 3,4, since different things are measured by different measures. Wherefore laws imposed on men should also be in keeping with their condition, for, as Isidore says (Etym. v, 21), law should be “possible both according to nature, and according to the customs of the country.” Now possibility or faculty of action is due to an interior habit or disposition: since the same thing is not possible to one who has not a virtuous habit, as is possible to one who has. Thus the same is not possible to a child as to a full-grown man: for which reason the law for children is not the same as for adults, since many things are permitted to children, which in an adult are punished by law or at any rate are open to blame. In like manner many things are permissible to men not perfect in virtue, which would be intolerable in a virtuous man.

          Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.

          Reply to Objection 1. Audacity seems to refer to the assailing of others. Consequently it belongs to those sins chiefly whereby one’s neighbor is injured: and these sins are forbidden by human law, as stated.

          Reply to Objection 2. The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Psalm 30:33): “He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood”; and (Matthew 9:17) that if “new wine,” i.e. precepts of a perfect life, “is put into old bottles,” i.e. into imperfect men, “the bottles break, and the wine runneth out,” i.e. the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break into evils worse still.

          Reply to Objection 3. The natural law is a participation in us of the eternal law: while human law falls short of the eternal law. Now Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5): “The law which is framed for the government of states, allows and leaves unpunished many things that are punished by Divine providence. Nor, if this law does not attempt to do everything, is this a reason why it should be blamed for what it does.” Wherefore, too, human law does not prohibit everything that is forbidden by the natural law.

          TL;DR: Just because it’s sinful doesn’t mean it should be illegal. Someone tell Cdl. Dolan.
          Of course, if you do agree with me, then we Catholics are left with the far more troubling (because concerned with far, far, far more grave matter) thought that our arguments for the personhood of the unborn (everyone agrees they are “alive”; so are skin cells–“life begins at conception” is a distraction from the question of when personhood begins) , and hence for the murderousness of abortionare rooted in some of those not-amenable-to-the-secular-public-square metaphysical deductions. I’m not ready to follow that where it leads yet. Help?

          • Iota

            > Help?

            I’m afraid you can’t be consistent in applying this principle. Because if you are going to argue that whenever people disagree with your metaphysics, you can’t intervene otherwise than by dialogue, you are setting up a potential feedback loop.

            People disagree with your metaphysics/ethics –> they act in a way that disagrees with your metaphysics/ethics and strengthens theirs –> They disagree with you even more.

            If that feedback loop happens on an issue you think is important, at some point the discrepancy is going to become intolerable. And it doesn’t matter if we are talking about a currently hot-button problem in a given society (say: same sex marriage) or an unfashionable one (“preferential option for the poor”, marriage crisis, access to alcohol, tobacco and drugs, military policy and spending). Either way there is going to be a point where the only thing to be done if you still believe in your metaphysics/ethics, is to start actively opposing this thing they’re doing.

            The thing is different people apparently put their thresholds for different forms of engagement or opposition at different points, so what is still a difference of opinion to be resolved by dialogue to one person, is a conflict to be fought to another. And the Church hasn’t exactly laid down a once-and-for-all one sentence rule about that (I’m not sure it could do that, even if it wanted to).

          • Irenist

            That’s an extremely helpful response, Iota, thanks.
            BTW: For any gay folks who read the post Iota is responding to and thought something like “So the lifelong loving relationship that lights up my life is sinful to you because of some abstract moral theory and I’m supposed to be impressed by your tolerance just because you don’t want to act on that ugly judgment legally?” I’d like to say that I’m sorry for any obnoxiousness on my part, and no, I don’t expect you to be impressed at all. I’d just like to see my Church hurt folks like you as little as possible consistent with our beliefs because you deserve better than the way we tend to act now.

          • Iota

            Also (I just thought of this) non-conflict and support are two different things and they do get mixed up a lot. Let’s say my friend drinks too much. She asks me to do something so that she can have the evening off and I know that she’s going to go party and drink (too much). I can either help her and thus facilitate her drinking, or decline and know that, if she knows why I declined, she will be aware I was trying to restrict her drinking opportunities (result: conflict). I don”t have a non-conflict, non-support option.

            The thing is democratic forms of government force you into that kind of a confrontation every single time you vote (they are not asking “Would you tolerate X and not rebel against the state if we decide to do it” as autocracies do, but “Are you in favour or against this?”).

      • My point at the moment isn’t so much against authority- the opinion of an authority at least counts as good Bayesian evidence, and I also believe all kinds of wacky things based on authority (c.f. all of modern physics)- though of course fill in the obligatory atheist objection to the Church as a valid moral authority. My point is that the following two positions are contradictory:

        1. Even if philosophers could come up with the right answers, taking them at face value would not make us better people, it would just be giving up our moral agency.
        2. The Church has come up with the right answers about moral questions (even in the cases where I clearly and vehemently disagreed in the past), therefore I will take them at face value. But this doesn’t count as giving up my moral agency.

        I’ve intentionally left out any appeals to working through the reasoning behind the moral claims, because you can do that with the philosophers just as easily as you can with the Church (or, for that matter, physics). I wonder if I’ve misunderstood your position on the hypothetical-world-where-philosophers-actually-figured-stuff-out, or if you have some way of differentiating these two scenarios that I don’t see.

        • leahlibresco

          Ok, how’s this for a differentiation: iPhone vs steampunk.

          An iPhone is designed to distract me from it’s existence as a made object. I’m supposed to use it without thinking about how it works (and, in fact, they use proprietary screws to keep me from getting in and poking around). By contrast, steampunk tries to put the inside of a machine on the outside (or at least visible), so I’m drawn into the logic of its construction and I think about how I relate to it and how I might tweak it or make better use of it.

          Philosophers or theologians can be more like Apple or more like steampunk folk. Either “here’s the cheat sheet, go forth” or “I’ve got it! Now, let me teach it to you so it becomes as much a part of you as sight or multiplication” Luke’s hypothetical world could fall into the steampunk mold, but I just didn’t get the sense that was a question he was very concerned about.

          • Fair enough. Perhaps this is a question not best answered in a combox, but your insistence that you haven’t given up your moral agency makes me wonder: if you’re unable to rectify your moral intuitions with the position taken by the Church, will you jettison your moral intuitions or the Church?

            If the former, I remain skeptical about your claim of maintaining your moral agency. If the latter, then I have a hard time seeing why your conversion experience led you to Catholicism in the first place.

    • I do think there is a two step process. One is to determine what is truly good and the other to internalize that goodness into yourself. When what is really good is not intuitive to you then that process will take time. So for a while you will be saying, “I believe, please help my unbelief.” In a moral situation that means I am going to live by the rules and please help me to really and truly embrace the goodness to the point where I don’t need to rules anymore.

      So if I want to kill my wife I need to obey the rule “Though shalt not kill.” That is not enough but in the short term it is pretty important I follow that rule. But really I need to understand how beautiful my wife is as a person and how I can love her in a way that gives us both deep and lasting joy. When I learn that I no longer need the rule. I no longer have any desire to kill her.

      BTW, don’t show my wife this comment!

      • Val

        Really? You refrain from violence only because it’s against the rules?

        • Sometimes that is the case. Those are not my better moments but I am glad the rules are there because I am not above impulses that are truly evil.

  • Qmwne

    I’m not a regular LW reader, so I decided to follow a trail of links to try to see where Luke’s philosophical inclinations come from. It seems like he’s a pretty dedicated Quinean, which means that he’s starting from a particular foundation (maybe Rorty would say it’s a non-foundation) and working from there. He’s impressed by the work of Joshua Greene on moral judgment (I’m not) and by Nick Bostrom’s work in anthropic reasoning (again, I’m not so much). Dennett on the intentional stance is only interesting at all if you believe that the idea of intentionality only has instrumental value.

    I don’t have any problem with the fact that he disagrees with me. But there plenty of good objections to a Quinean worldview (oh hey, Jaegwon Kim! nice to see you, Strawson and Grice!) that would seem to allow the possibility that the rest of philosophy is actually relevant, and besides, even the most hardcore Quinean wouldn’t say that you shouldn’t do metaphysics. They would just say that you should leave open the possibility of revising your intuitions (which may well change the entire structure of your beliefs). I don’t think that trying to do philosophy without any intuitions at all would be very productive, because intuitions are raw material in philosophy (and to some extent, in science as well).

    In general, it seems that his views are exactly those I would expect from someone who believes Artificial Intelligence will be realized and wants to bring it about as quickly as possible. Which is fine, but there is more to philosophy that is important and useful than that. Beyond the role of philosophy as a handmaiden to the sciences – a role which, as a scientist, I appreciate – philosophers are also supposed to question the bases of their own views and those of scientific disciplines, and besides have to take all kinds of normative questions that no amount of thinking about causal models and neural nets will solve.

    The assumption that people who aren’t working in fields of philosophy directly applicable to science aren’t doing useful work is akin to the assumption that someone doing work in, say, theoretical metacommunity ecology is doing nothing to help the environment. It only makes sense within a very narrow scope.

    • Qmwne

      On second thought, I don’t think this comment is clear enough about what I mean. My concern is that in his revised curriculum, Luke is jettisoning a lot of the normative aspects of philosophical inquiry (e.g. replacing traditional ethics with game theory and decision theory), and then imposing the normative concept of “rationality” as a basic motivation for doing so. While I don’t read Luke’s post in bad faith, this does seem to me like a Trojan horse for Luke’s particular values, while philosophy should involve a freer inquiry about the proper ends of our knowledge.

      For example, results from cognitive psychology about human moral judgments are only useful if we have an idea of what proper moral judgments ought to be. It doesn’t do any work to just say that they ought to be “rational” and leave it at that.

      Incidentally, one of Jaegwon Kim’s main criticisms of Quinean epistemology is that it’s primarily descriptive and doesn’t address many of the normative questions about proper justification and the ends of knowledge.

  • Ismael

    “His list of recommended topics include Bayesian statistics, machine learning, mathematical logic, game theory, cognitive neuroscience, etc.”

    Yes… and ironically many (smart) scientists are HORRIBLE at philosophy and often make philosophical statements that are ridiculous and publish books about it (Krauss comes to mind…).

    Philosophy is not empirical science. The thought process in the two disciplines are different… although bouth linked by the rules of logic.I do agree, however, that philosphers SHOULD keep informed with modern science and understand at the very leasts the basics of it.