Monday, November 28, 2016

The garden of philosophy

Philosophers disagree on almost everything and there is no hard core of philosophical thinking. That was my conclusion last week. However, lack of consensus is one thing, lack of progress is something else. As Chalmers states in his paper quoted last week (p. 9): “Despite this lack of convergence, it is hard to deny that the insights of Plato and Aristotle, Hume and Kant, Frege and Russell, Kripke and Lewis have involved significant philosophical progress.” Now I can examine what this progress involves, but I think that the result will be anyway that there is no progress comparable with the progress made in hard sciences like physics, chemistry and biology. But is the comparison right?
Once upon a time there was a field behind my house. It gave me plenty of space for sitting in the sun and reading a book, but it was empty. Or so it seemed to me, for actually it was full of weeds and the insects, butterflies and birds loved it, and the mice and voles liked it, too. However, it didn’t satisfy my mind and I wanted to change it. So I bought a spade, and bags of seed and some little trees and fertilizer as well. I made a design and I started to dig and to sow, and I planted the trees, and I built also a pond. I looked how others made their gardens, and I copied them or let myself inspire by their ideas. After a few years I had a beautiful garden with a good structure and every plant had its place and everything fitted together in a harmonious way. The insects and butterflies and birds loved my garden even more than before and the mice and the voles loved it, too, as did the frogs attracted by the pond and the slugs attracted by the sappy plants. They all were very satisfied with my garden, but I wasn’t. Or rather, I thought that it wasn’t bad but it could be better, for everything that is good can be improved, and so I thought “Let’s make things better”. I restructured my garden, I removed plants and I replaced them by even more beautiful plants. I replaced the trees by yet more beautiful trees that even better fitted my garden. After some time I saw that it had really improved and that I had made a lot of progress in gardening as well. I had got a lot of knowledge how to make a garden and everybody praised my expertise. And the insects, butterflies, birds, mice and voles and also the frogs and slugs praised me by their deeds, for they came in increasingly bigger quantities to my garden and they were even more pleased with this piece of land than before.
However, better is not good enough, and although I thought that my garden was not bad and that it was even better than before, I got the idea that here a plant should be removed, there one had to be replaced; elsewhere a plant had to added, and I saw also that the structure of the paths had to be changed yet a bit. Of course, some time was spent on weeding, too. Again everyone praised my expertise and insight and the garden became better and better. And also the wild life in my garden thought so and it came there in still bigger quantities.
But each person becomes older, and after many years I sold my garden and I started to philosophize, since it takes less effort. I sold also my house and moved to the other side of the street and I saw how the new owner of the garden found it a good place for taking a sunbath and for reading. However, although he wasn’t really dissatisfied with the garden, he saw some weak points in it, and since good is not good enough, he thought “let’s make things better” and so he did and cleared the garden, built it up anew and he liked it, at least for some time, and everybody else who saw it liked it as well. The animals in the garden loved it even more than mine, or at least most of them did. But since better is not good enough ...
Once I wrote a blog about the relation between gardening and philosophizing. Philosophizing can be seen, I said there, as weeding the thoughts that you have developed till you have an ordered whole. It is sowing and planting the ideas in your head and structuring them in the right way. If the result is not satisfactory in some way, you try to improve it, even when others say that what you did is beautiful. But most of us – the gardeners – don’t breed the plants and seed ourselves but we leave it to specialists. And so the quality of our plants improves and they become more beautiful and they fit better our soil and they are less vulnerable to pests and weeds, and we call it plant improvement. But they who improve the plants don’t put them in a garden. That’s what the gardeners do. We the gardeners give each plant its place and puts it in the structure of the garden so that it comes out best and fits in the whole. If we are not satisfied with what we made, we try to do it better, till we become old and leave the job to young gardeners. I think that this is what philosophers do and what philosophizing involves. Philosophizing is cultivating the fields left and ignored by the branches of science and giving everything it’s meaningful place – a place that gives sense to those who see it. As long as we are pleased with it, we think that we have made things better. But people come and people go and everyone his mind, for better is not good enough.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The hard core of philosophy

One question is whether there has been progress in commonsense thinking (or folk psychology as it is called most of the time), which I discussed last week. A different question is, whether there has been progress in philosophy, a question that has also been the subject of quite a bit of philosophical debates and that has been discussed by some of the most prominent thinkers, like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl R. Popper and Thomas S. Kuhn. In this blog I’ll not try to answer this question, but I want to talk about one important aspect of it: whether there is a received body or “hard core” of philosophical knowledge.
Progress is a relative matter in the sense that things are compared “before” and “after”. So we must have something to compare and what we want to compare must be viewed at several moments in time. Without any further discussion, I think that we can say that in the “hard” sciences like physics, chemistry and biology there is a core body of knowledge that is generally accepted and that has been growing through the years. But how about philosophy? Does it have a received body of knowledge?
In 2009 David J. Chalmers and D. Bourget made a list of thirty central themes in philosophy and asked via a survey academic philosophers – mainly in the field of analytic/Anglocentric philosophy – what their positions on those themes were. There were some 2000 recipients of the survey and 47% filled it in and sent it back. The outcome? It’s not unexpected, and actually it was what everybody who knows a bit about philosophy could tell you, but from the point of view of the hard sciences it’s somewhat shocking: There is no hard core of philosophical thinking. Maybe the conclusion is a bit too hard, for if you look closer you may find some points about which all philosophers agree (but I guess that they are rare), but on almost any theme in the survey philosophers are divided. I’ll not go into the details what all the terms that follow mean, but here are some examples, and if you only take a look at the division of the percentages, you’ll see that there is no unanimity among the thinkers (you can find the full list in Chalmers article below):
- free will: compatibilism 59%, libertarianism 14%, no free will 12%, other 15%
- mental content: externalism 51%, internalism 20%, other 29%
- normative ethics: deontology 26%, consequentialism 24%, virtue ethics 18%, other 32%
- truth: correspondence 51%, deflationary 25%, epistemic 7%, other 17%
Etc.: On almost all 30 themes the philosophers who filled in the survey disagree to an important extent on what “the facts” are. Only on one theme more than 80% agreed: On the question whether there is an external world, for 82% of the philosophers asked think that the outside world “really” exists. Three views (namely that there is a priori knowledge; atheism; and scientific realism – saying that the world is as described by science) attracted over 70% support. Three more views got more than 60% support. On all the other 23 questions the philosophers disagreed in a more or less stronger way.
What to say more? I think that the conclusion is clear. Philosophers disagree on almost any issue that is important for them and there is no hard core of philosophical thinking. Is it surprising? No, of course, for what should philosophers philosophize about when they agreed?

Source: David J. Chalmers, “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?”, on

Monday, November 14, 2016

Thinking in progress

Industrial agriculture: Genetically manipulated sunflowers. Progress in science?

When the neurophilosopher Paul M. Churchland argued that “both the content and the success of FP [folk psychology, or commonsense] have not advanced sensibly in two or three thousand years”, he put forward a controversial view. He actually stated that our commonsense thinking is still on the level of the Ancient Greeks and that it has come to a standstill since then, if there has been any progress at all before these times. This becomes clear, when we see how Churchland goes on with his argument immediately after the sentence quoted: “The FP of the Greeks is essentially the FP we use today, and we are negligibly better at explaining human behavior in its terms than was Sophocles. This is a very long period of stagnation ...”. Actually it is not only Churchland who says so. It has often been contended that there is no progress in commonsense thinking, for the difference with the spectacular progress in scientific thinking is great. And not only commonsense thinking seems to stagnate but also more learned but non-scientific ways of thinking like philosophy according to some.
Although it is true that there has been much progress in science, nevertheless I think we have to put it into perspective. Scientific progress has been spectacular, indeed, but in fact it mainly happened during the past 400 years. Before progress has been very slow, although undeniable. But the development of celts from the simplest forms to efficient instruments was already a matter of three million years, and for the development of industrial forms of agriculture man still needed 15-20,000 years, to take a few examples. Only since about 1600 A.D. the development of science has been exponential.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that commonsense thinking and also philosophical thinking will finally develop in the same exponential way. But why should it? For unlike what Churchland thinks, commonsense thinking is not a sort of making quasi-scientific theories that are confronted with what is happening in the world and then tested and improved, just in the way scientific theories are experimentally tested. Commonsense views are not theories from which predictions can be deduced that can falsify them, and they are not quasi-scientific theories that are replaced by better ones. This is not the way man thinks, as every psychologist can tell you. And just this “as every psychologist can tell you” is already a case of refutation of Churchland’s view, for in the days of Sophocles no one who thought about human behaviour would say that. Moreover, it’s simply not true that the “folk psychology” of the Greeks is essentially the same as ours. Ancient Greek society was a class society that distinguished between free citizens and slaves. Among the former, only adult males had the right to vote (at least that was the situation in Athens, which was a kind of democracy). This society was very different from today’s Western society and today’s Western democracy. Much of what belongs to our present commonsense conception would be completely useless in Ancient Greek society, not only because the social organization has changed but also because many daily social conventions are now entirely different. Just that is one reason why many people in authoritarian political systems rise in revolt against such systems since there have been developed democratic alternatives. In the days of the ancient Greeks authoritarian systems were replaced by other authoritarian systems if necessary, with a democratic upper layer at most. Nowadays people want a fully-fledged democracy. And should we not consider it to be progress that today human rights are generally accepted and applied to everybody irrespective of class, sex, origin, etc. (how poorly they may be observed), while in Ancient Greece human rights (or what counted as such in those days) obtained only for free citizens? And what about the feudal system? Were not even then the rights different according to which estate one belonged? Is it not to be called progress that today there are generally valid human rights? And what to think of the idea of women rights, gay rights, and so on? Isn’t all this a matter of progress in commonsense, so that we can say that “both the content and the success of FP have ... advanced sensibly?”

Reference: Churchland, Paul M. (1992), A neurocomputational perspective. The nature of mind and the structure of science, Cambridge, Mass. etc.: The MIT Press (quotes from p. 8).

Monday, November 07, 2016

Facing life

 The author facing life

The main lesson we can learn from my last blog is that death comes often in an unexpected way. If these inhabitants in Herculaneum had been asked how they might die, perhaps they would have mentioned ten or more ways how death could come to them, but probably none of them would have thought that they could die because of a volcanic eruption: For them, volcanic eruptions were an unknown phenomenon. Actually, the way these people in Herculaneum died, and even more what they knew about ways of dying is an argument in support of Montaigne’s contention that “seeing we are threatened by so many sorts of death, is it not infinitely worse eternally to fear them all, than once to undergo one of them?” For if we are afraid of all kinds of possible deaths, we may be afraid of the wrong one. And if we simply try to avoid that one of these kinds of death will happen, we are on the wrong track. I don’t mean that it isn’t good to take precautions against a possible premature death. It’s good to get injections against common illnesses and I should advice everybody to wear a seat belt in a car. But such measures should be seen as what they in fact are: They are not precautions – which suggests that they can prevent what we don’t wish to happen – but safety measures that reduce the chance that something undesirable happens but doesn’t exclude it. If this is the only thing we do, we are in the wrong. Safety measures are necessary but they are not sufficient and it is not right to think that this is the way to face death. It’s only negative and it doesn’t help us stand in life.
In his essay “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die” (Essays I, 19), from which I borrowed the quotation above, Montaigne tells us about Chiron who rejected to get eternal life from his father Saturn. Why? In Montaigne’s words: “Do but seriously consider how much more insupportable and painful an immortal life would be to man [if it were eternal]. If you had not death, you would eternally curse me for having deprived you of it”. Suppose that you had eternal life. What would you do? What reason would you have to act? Everything could be done later. It’s quite likely that you’ll think so and act accordingly, even if having eternal life does not involve having eternal youth (many people who think that eternal life is something to be wished for, forget that it may be a life in which you still become physically older and cripple and helpless after some time). To my mind, just the fact that man is forced to act in order to survive gives life sense. Not taking precautions against death – which is impossible in the end, also because, as we have seen, death can come in an unexpected way – is the way to face death but acting is and so performing what we positively want. By doing so we give sense to life and we give it a meaning – namely in the way we act. Therefore I can fully agree with what Montaigne had written a few paragraphs before: “The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time”. It’s what Montaigne learned from his own experiences. When he was about thirty years old, several people dear to him died, including his father and his beloved friend Étienne de La Boétie. It made him afraid of death. And then it happened almost to himself, when he fell from his horse. Although he was unconscious and vomiting blood, for himself it was not an unpleasant event. When Montaigne came round, he tells us, “I shut my eyes, to help, methought, to thrust it out, and took a pleasure in languishing and letting myself go. It was an imagination that only superficially floated upon my soul, as tender and weak as all the rest, but really, not only exempt from anything displeasing, but mixed with that sweetness that people feel when they glide into a slumber.” (Essays II, 6). It made that Montaigne changed his attitude towards death and he was no longer scared of it and he became positive towards life. As we have seen, we find this vision on life already in his essay “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die”. Even though the essay is mainly about death, it’s why I think a better title would have been “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Live”, for what it actually says is that facing death is facing life.