Monday, March 17, 2014

Philosophy and facts

Can you TRY to forget that you were there?

Wittgenstein wrote on logic which is about thought. Is all philosophy only about thought? I had to think of it, when I read an article by Kevin Lynch recently (see note). Lynch starts his article with the observation that “according to a common assumption in the philosophical literature about how self-deception gets accomplished, subjects deceive themselves into believing something by the control of attention” (p. 63). However, Lynch casts doubt on this assumption, which he particularizes as the idea “whether people have the power to intentionally deceive themselves using the ordinary sources of their own mind and body”(ibid. - italics mine). Or yet more specific: The assumption states that it is possible to make “acquire oneself a belief which, before trying to do this, one knew to be false or at least unwarranted” (p. 64). This can be done, so many adherents of this idea (“attentionalists”) suppose, by shifting attention intentionally from the belief to be suppressed to an acceptable belief. So, attentionalists think that people can manage to successfully deceive themselves intentionally. In their theories they explain how this can be done. (cf pp. 63-64)
Then Lynch presents and discusses a few attentionalist theories. The essence is: Attentionalists, like Perring, Davidson, Audi and others, try to substantiate their idea by philosophical means, so by reasoning. And, as Lynch stresses, “these philosophers make no special effort to insist that these acts of shifting attention are carried out unconsciously” (p. 65; italics by Lynch). The acts are done intentionally and knowingly. They can be done by simply directing one’s attention away from the unwanted thought (pp. 65-69).
This is the theory and so it works according to the attentionalists. But does it really work that way? In order to answer the question Lynch takes an essential step: He turns away from philosophy and asks what psychology says about it, so he appeals to an experimental approach. Keeping it short: Psychological experiments have shown that one can’t suppress beliefs intentionally and consciously. Therefore the attentionalist theory is false.
What does this mean for philosophy? Probably I have said it more often, but there is thought and there is the real world (I don’t want to say that thoughts do not belong to the real world, but here I make the distinction for the sake of argument. I suppose that my readers understand what I mean). Philosophy is about thought. It reasons and discusses about concepts and their relations, about what is fundamental and cannot be shown and about questions of life. Without a doubt you can add a few themes more.
In his Tractatus logico-philosophicus Wittgenstein said: “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, our problems of life have still not been touched at all” (6.52). This is also true the other way round: Even if all possible questions of life and thought have been answered, we still know nothing about the real world. It’s the latter what science is about. I tend to say that all questions that can fundamentally be answered by science cannot be answered convincingly by philosophy. Even if philosophers give an answer, always the question remains: You say it, but is it true? You talk about facts, so look what the facts are and not how you think they are. However, often it happens that philosophers ignore that what they think and say can be tested against reality. Then they can say what they think, but what they say fails to have the right foundation: facts (whatever this may mean, but just that’s a philosophical question). The attentionalist question is typically a question that can and so need to be answered by science (and so has to be the subject of scientific research): Can you think away your unwanted thoughts? Well, try it and see what happens. But apparently no attentionalist philosopher has tried it, for it is impossible.
The upshot is: philosophy is for philosophers and the rest is for ... (to be filled in, for instance by “scientists”; however there is more in the real world than only science). Every man to his own trade (and the same for women).

Note: Kevin Lynch, “Self-deception and shifts of attention”, in Philosophical Explorations, 2014/1: 63-75.

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