The limits of philosophy

Or should I say – “The trouble with philosophy?”

Whatever. The title certainly makes a change from those like “The Limits of science.” How many times have I seen such titles on articles written by religious apologists, philosophers of religion, or even straight non-religious philosophers. These articles usually annoy me because they often set up a straw man – a claim that science has no limits – which no scientists is making.

So it’s nice to turn the tables for a change.

Monty Python’s Football – Philosophers often play for different teams

I often get criticised by philosophers, theologians, philosophers of religion and students of philosophy for making philosophical mistakes – or so they claim. I’ve been told that I should not write about the science of morality if I haven’t read and studied a long list of ancient, and not so ancient, philosophers. Commonly I am admonished for trying to determine an “ought from an is” – a violation of “Humes Law.” And I have been told that scientists should leave questions like origins of life and the universe, or the question of existence of supernatural beings, to philosophers. Such questions, they tell me, are outside the limits of science.

Oh yes, about now I also get accused of “scientism!”

Very often my reply to such criticisms is that there is no such thing as an accepted unified philosophical dogma. That the claims thrown at me come not from philosophy in general, but from a particular school of philosophy. There is “philosophy” and then there is “philosophy.” My critics should be up front and advance their claims as representative of their own philosophy, or the particular school of philosophy they adhere to, not as representative of philosophy in general.

“What do Philosophers Believe?

So I am pleased to see the on-line publication of the paper What Do Philosophers Believe? by David Bourget and David J. Chalmers. This study confirms that philosophers are indeed divided on a number of issues – they hold a range of beliefs which can influence their philosophical thoughts and positions. These beliefs are influenced by a range of demographic and social factors. And philosophers themselves often have a false opinion of the degree to which different beliefs are common in their professional community.

Sean Carroll, at What Do Philosophers Believe?, and Jerry Coyne at The consensus of philosophers, have commented briefly on the paper. Have a look at those articles, or the paper itself (download here), for a full list of beliefs and their degree of support among philosophers. But here are a few which seem relevant to debates I have had here. (Sorry about the briefness of the terms – that’s related to the nature of the survey):

1. A priori knowledge: yes 71.1%; no 18.4%; other 10.5%.

5. Epistemic justification: externalism 42.7%; internalism 26.4%; other 30.8%.

6. External world: non-skeptical realism 81.6%; skepticism 4.8%; idealism 4.3%; other 9.2%.

8. God: atheism 72.8%; theism 14.6%; other 12.6%.

10. Knowledge: empiricism 35.0%; rationalism 27.8%; other 37.2%.

15. Metaphilosophy: naturalism 49.8%; non-naturalism 25.9%; other 24.3%.

16. Mind: physicalism 56.5%; non-physicalism 27.1%; other 16.4%.

18. Moral motivation: internalism 34.9%; externalism 29.8%; other 35.3%.

20. Normative ethics: deontology 25.9%; consequentialism 23.6%; virtue ethics 18.2%; other 32.3%.

25. Science: scientific realism 75.1%; scientific anti-realism 11.6%; other 13.3%.

So I feel vindicated in answering my critics by pointing out the lack of consensus among philosophers on many issues. What right has a philosopher of religion to assure me their arguments against my statements are “philosophical” (and not just representative of a school of religious philosophy)? Similarly, why should I simply take on trust assurances that “philosophy” has a particular position on scientific realism, moral motivations or the nature of ethical norms?

There is “philosophy” and there is “philosophy.” If you wish to lecture me about philosophical positions at least be open about the philosophical school you are representing or adhere to.

No suprise at differences

Frankly, I am unsurprised at the lack of consensus among philosophers. It contrasts sharply with the situation in science – which on most matters has a high degree of consensus. OK, there are debates at the edges – and these can be intense. Remember the scene in “The Big Bang Theory” where a romantic alliance between two physicists broke up because one was aString Theorist while the other adhered to Loop Gravity“.  Just imagine the problems they would have raising their children!

Ben Goren commented at Jerry’s website on the poor philosophical consensus compared with science :

“Survey a bunch of scientists on comparable topics, and you’ll find overwhelming consensus that, for example: Evolution is true; Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are basically right on (and anything that replaces either is going to have to reduce to both at suitable scales); that the Earth’s surface moves in manners described by Plate Tectonics; and so on.

Yet these jokers are doing good just to get a slim majority that don’t think that we’re all literally outside of our brains.”

But while we should be aware of the different levels of confidence in philosophical and scientific knowledge this  does not show differences in personal capabilities between the two professions. The difference is exactly what we should expect from the different nature of the two subjects.

Philosophy could be said to be an “armchair” subject. Philosophers reason and think. They apply logic to hypothetical situations. Often scenarios which have no possible reality but are at least “logical possibilities” will get a lot of attention. It’s also not surprising that demographic and social factors can influence philosophical reasoning. Humans are just not very rational and their reasoning often suffers from ideolgical and social motivations.

Science is usually a very much “hands on” subject. Ideas are tested against reality. Scientists are just as irrational (or human) as anyone else – they also easily fall into the trap of motivated reasoning. But the final arbiter of ideas for science is reality itself. Experiments can be performed or observations made to check predictions of hypotheses.

Of course philosophy and science does merge at the edges. There is actually a field of experimental philosophy and good philosophers do pay attention to scientific knowledge. On the other hand some science cannot always be tested in practice – at least with the current technological limits. Some scientists seem to work more like philosophers – and some philosophers work more like scientists.

But let’s get away from the idea that logic or philosophy is the final arbiter of knowledge. That is taking philosophy beyond its limits.

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11 responses to “The limits of philosophy

  1. Bushbasher

    To the outside observer, it would appear that Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein and the logical positivists rubbished most of the speculative nonsense which passed for ‘philosophy’…about 100 years ago. The great Feynmann thought such ‘philosophy’ a joke, and regularly said so. Levine’s “In Bad Faith” nails it.


  2. To me, the value of philosophy isn’t that it provides the big answers. It rarely does. The value of philosophy is that it asks the big questions, the ones that rub our noses in the uncomfortable truth that we really don’t have it all figured out as well as we kid ourselves that we do.


  3. Sure, Mike, but even in the questions being asked there are differences arising from the very nature of philosophy itself as being based on an attempt, only an attempt mind you, at logic and rational thought. Some of the questions being posed can reveal a terrific lot about the ideological motivations of the questioners. Some of the so called “why” questions can in themselves be meaningless.

    I think the best questions are those asked by those who interact with reality.


  4. “I think the best questions are those asked by those who interact with reality.”

    Absolutely. Now, let’s construct a philosophy that will settle once and for all what reality is.


  5. …the ones that rub our noses in the uncomfortable truth that we really don’t have it all figured out as well as we kid ourselves that we do.

    Ah. Um. Wha…?


  6. Mike – you propose “Now, let’s construct a philosophy that will settle once and for all what reality is.”

    But isn’t that going outside the limits of philosophy? Surely philosophy is not capable of answering such questions? Isn’t that the function of science?


  7. Well, I wouldn’t say so. I see philosophy as dealing with the most fundamental of questions, even to how science is supposed to work. I mean, the rationale behind scientific work is philosophical, right? Whenever we discuss the how and why of anything, including science, isn’t that philosophical?

    BTW, my question was a little tongue-in-cheek. I don’t think we’re going to be able to land on a way of looking at reality that everyone will agree on.


  8. Bit, Mike, haven’t we already “landed” on a way of looking at reality which has an immense amount of consensus – and a way which is very successful and bringing humanity great understanding and many benefits? It’s called science.

    Pure abstract philosophy has not had that success – basically because it doesn’t interact with reality.

    Now, of course philosophy does deal with epistemology etc. But as I have said, and as that survey makes clear, there is “philosophy” and “philosophy.” True, a philosophy which integrates with scientific knowledge and process is going to have lot of success. It can even help clarify how science is done – as long as it does not do so dogmatically.

    But be careful about claiming things for “philosophy” in general. There are a number of philosophical rationales “behind scientific work” and discussion of “the why and how” of things including science which are pure crap.

    For example, some philosophers of religion today are advancing concepts of how science is done which present it in an extremely false light. For example Plantinga.


  9. I agree with a lot of that. It just looked to me like you were trying to divorce science from philosophy altogether. Everything–everything at all–has a philosphy underlying it. That’s the way I tend to use the word. You, apparently, mean something on the order of “that which professional philosphers do.” Not mutually exclusive, but the spotlight doesn’t necessarily shine on exactly the same place.


  10. Mike, it really does come back to my point that there is not a consensus in philosophy. Some philosophy favours science, others oppose it.

    I think there was a requirement for a fundamental break with medieval philosophy for the scientific revolution to occur. In the case of Galileo he expressed it in terms of discovering things about the natural world by investigating the natural world – not from authority or scripture.

    The old philosophy had proved itself incapable of promoting understanding and knowledge and was intricately intertwined with religion. The new scientific philosophy accepted the need to investigate and learn from reality, not scripture and authority.

    History has shown that a scientific philosophy has been incredibly successful because it promoted a modern scientific process. But the old medieval philosophy still survives and is promoted by religions – some more actively, some passively.

    So in effect we see a conflicts between different philosophies in today’s world. It is represented in the conflict between science and religion. In fact the evangelical religious philosophers can be quite clear about the philosophy they promote in opposition to scientific philosophy. The intelligent design people at the Discovery Institute made this obvious in their Wedge Strategy document.

    I am not attempting to divorce science from philosophy – just from bad philosophy. In fact scientist are, without most of them being aware, intuitively doing philosophy when they do scientific research. But if they accepted Plantinga’s advocacy of simple logical possibility as reality instead of investigating reality itself then they wouldn’t be doing science – they would be doing religion.

    It is too naive to claim that everything has philosophy behind it without being clear that some philosophy is bad while some is good.

    In my experience people, usually students I think, who tell me what scientific method is from a philosophical perspective (eg methodological materialism) do not understand scientific process at all and they are attempting to impose a dogmatic view.


  11. @mikespeir: “Everything–everything at all–has a philosophy underlying it.”

    (Whoa; you’ve overshot this runway:) Every human action might have a _theory_ underlying it — certainly science practice does — but philosophies are at best distantly incidental to a life well lived. (We hear the P-term a lot because it is routinely overused in conversation: ‘What is your philosophy about vehicle or _______ maintenance?’)


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