“Philosophy is Outdated” Part I-b: Nope, the insularists are. Quit emasculating philosophy.

In the previous article of the series, I have shared some personal experiences on why philosophy might be seen as somewhat outdated by the public and other academics. I have also discussed some concerns that I share with Paul Churchland about the way philosophy is being taught especially in my country.

The main point is that ‘philosophical’ literature in the country (maybe in others as well) is much entrenched with ideologies (religious, secular, and mixed) and moralistic tendencies (to be fond of casting moral judgments) and this overshadows the contributions of philosophy to intellectual progress in the sciences (including mathematics).

In this article, I would like to further discuss several points that Churchland had raised in his 1996 paper, The Continuity of Philosophy and the Sciences. Let me start by dwelling a bit on the main argument of his paper.

The sentence-crunching paradigm replaced

In the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language, according to Churchland, there were fundamental assumptions. One big assumption was that a person is a subject of beliefs and a user of sentences. Beliefs are thought of as the human units of knowledge and sentences as the units of communication.

The internal (beliefs) and external (sentences) sorts of units display the same formal and semantic properties in the old paradigm. These are connected to the world through some referencing of singular terms/concepts and through the extension of their general terms/concepts. In this sense, when one sets out to learn about the world he should acquire a system of such units preferably a system that the units are true. Also, to talk is to declare one’s mood, share thoughts, and feelings to others. These are general examples in the orthodox view according to Churchland.

These are the basic and general assumptions for how humans represent and communicate in the world. These two are the ways by which scholars can analyze human cognition and behavior. This relates to what Steven Pinker said: language is being used as the window to the human soul.

But in the light of advances in the empirical fields of the sciences, namely neurobiology, there is now an general alternative to what he calls the sentence-crunching paradigm of the philosophical tradition.

To keep things quick and simple, there is newer frontier in investigating the mind through assimilating an empirical approach. This new advancement now enables philosophers to finally work within a paradigm about representations that finally makes contact with the micro-structure of the brain.

What was once just examined by analysis and logic is now open for empirical investigations. We no longer can just rely on a priori or ‘conceptual analysis’ anymore. Furthermore, if one would opt to just rely on a priori her work would be lazy and that would be very intellectually dishonest of her.

Of course, the paper was published in 1996. I was very young then and might have been in a playground when it was up for print. Churchland then was talking about the concept of state spaces and sensorimotor representation (proprioception) and computation. Now, we have more complex yet elegant models like hierarchical predictive coding and the free-energy principle. These are models that have been deemed to be neurally plausible. They offer a paradigm that “makes contact with the micro-structure of the brain”.

It is a good thing that many have heeded Churchland and many philosophers of mind have been on that same line of thinking with Churchland. Andy Clark, Dan Dennett, Jakob Hohwy, David Chalmers, and, of course, Patricia Churchland and others have been influencing conceptual and experimental research in cognitive science. (Hohwy is a good example of a philosopher who also does experiments.)

This harks back to the thinkers of old who were diligent in their conceptual reasoning, their experiments and their interpretations of their experiments. Furthermore, many of them worked to have a unified account of it all.

The continuity of philosophy and the sciences: proto-science and synthesis

What many philosophers, scientists, and non-specialists mistake is that philosophy and the sciences have had a clean break but this is far from the truth. It is true though that a part of philosophy has been turned into science. For the most part, it is natural philosophy.

Massimo Pigluicci, a philosopher and a scientist, pointed out that dating back at least to the 16th and 7th century, that the first scientist-philosophers like Bacon, Galileo, and Newton begun this process of turning natural philosophy into science. In fact, the term scientist was invented around March 1834 (the date that it first was printed).

Pigluicci pointed out that contemporary relationships between the two are still to some extent marked with distrust between the two. I do not think that this can be helped because of how scientists practice science and how philosophers carry on with their philosophy.

Of this, Pigluicci remarked that scientists after all want to do science and not think about how it is done except occasionally when they are close to retirement (maybe in jest). Philosophers also, he added, have the intellectual right to inquire on how science is done (among other things) without justifying themselves to scientists by defending the “utility” to science of their activities. It is the same thing with literary criticism, music, art, and what not.

More recently, Pigluicci noted, increasing number of philosophers have been making conceptual contributions to the sciences such as cognitive science (e.g. philosophers mentioned in the previous section), quantum mechanics(e.g. David Albert), and evolutionary biology (e.g. Pigluicci and Kaplan about the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis) among many.

Good conceptual contributions are likely to be done by sentence-crunching, concept analyzing, and imaginative scholars rather than those who dedicate themselves to mostly experiments. Of course, the scholar doing ‘conceptual’ work should be knowledgeable about the empirical side as well.

Take Albert Einstein for example. He was known more for being a theorist rather than an experimenter. He needed experimenters like Sir Arthur Eddington to see whether his theory holds in the natural world. If he was so inclined and, had the required ability, in doing the empirical side of his work, I doubt that he would have passionately campaigned for others to do it.

As in Imre Lakatos’ concept of the “research program”, progress can be achieved in two ways: the theoretical and the empirical. Rigorous conceptual analysis and sentence-crunching is a necessity, not an ornament, to make progress theoretically; provided, that the ones doing theory and analysis are well-versed in the program.

Let me put it this way.

It is less likely for a philosopher who knows next to nothing about quantum mechanics to help in the conceptual clarification and, more so, in making theoretical progress. It is also less likely for a typical life-long lab biologist in the pharmaceutical industry to contribute conceptually to biocultural evolution.

But for philosophers like Pigluicci (also an ecologist), Dennett (also a cognitive scientist), Hohwy (also an experimenter), and the Churchlands (their children are also neuroscientists), it is more likely that they can conceptually contribute to their research programs than say David Lane Craig or Alvin Platinga who are basically theologians who use the methods of philosophy as handmaiden to theology.

In this light, Churchland stated that:

“…the philosopher is just another theorist whose bailiwick often places him or her at the earliest stages of the process by which proto-scientific speculation slowly develops into testable empirical theory”.

Philosophy, he added, is the cradle in which novel scientific disciplines are conceived and nurtured; and even when they become mature sciences, philosophy remains as the synoptic concerns about how these scattered sciences fit together into a unified account of the world and our place in it.

Philosophy is not outdated. Some philosophical positions are. One of such positions is the insularist position.

The sins of the insularists: (1) selling snake oil, (2) pseudo-philosophy and Scientism

Churchland warns of an insularist view of philosophy. This, for him, overestimates and underestimates the contribution that can be made by the discipline of philosophy.

Under this view, the philosopher is being portrayed as someone who does not have anything to do with empirical hypotheses because doing such is over-stepping from his or her proper territory. This, Churchland stated, and I agree, indicts almost every major figure in philosophy’s history. This underestimates our very discipline.

The insularists also overestimate the possible contribution of our discipline. Largely, when one takes an insularist position, he portrays the philosopher as a discoverer or propagator of a “higher grade” of a priori or conceptual truth. Churchland concludes that this indicts us all as snake oil peddlers for there is no grade of truth higher than that of true empirical theory. This is so because this is the best thing that we can muster in piercing nature’s veil and mysteries. For no a priori concept or theory about the world that cannot be corrected in light of new empirical evidence.

This, of course, is the position of a naturalist and the proper position of science. Naturalism is taking an axiom (or assumption) that everything in the natural world can be explained by natural causes and nothing in the world outside of the natural. This is a philosophical position which all scientists, at least in methodology, should have.

This is the philosophical baggage of science as expressed beautifully by Dan Dennett:

“There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.” Dennett in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

As Pigluicci pointed out, naturalism is not empirically verifiable. This is therefore outside the bounds of science itself as science is about empirically verifiable statements about the world. Engaging in conceptual analysis of naturalism and its converse, supernaturalism or preternaturalism, is not doing science as it can never have an empirical arm.

Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss (I owe much to both by the way) when they talk about supernaturalism and religion are not engaging in science. They are trying to engage in philosophy (naively).

Dawkins and Krauss have their fair share of public debates. They have been seated on stage across theologians (who have mandatory “philosophical” training) and the mostly ‘insularist’ philosophers.

One cannot really blame them for “bad mouthing” philosophy as a discipline initially. But having sat together with sharp and incisive naturalist philosophers such as Dan Dennett and Massimo Pigluicci many times, I cannot help but be baffled by they can still put down the whole enterprise.

Maybe arguing with theologians for many times may have emotionally exhausted them enough to be categorically dismissive of philosophical and pseudo-philosophical argumentation outside the bounds of science are the easiest way to go (with the exception of prescriptive ethics and politics).

By declaring other meaningful ways of thinking as outdated except their own, they have helped put up a new ideology with other science popularists: Scientism or the over-wielding of scientific theories, method, and findings in areas where they are not valid arbiter of affairs. I see it as a reaction to the abounding pseudo-philosophy or the use of the methods and outer garbs of philosophy in propagating various religious and secular ideologies (including Scientism of course).

The rise of Scientism owes much thanks to the insularists with their underestimation and overestimation of the discipline of philosophy. By having a distorted view of philosophy, they have misrepresented it to the scientists and the public at large. They have unwittingly created a straw man which philosophically-naive scientists throw serious jabs at thinking they have delivered real blows.

It is also equally amusing that scientists (with Scientism) who through their over-wielding ‘science’ have misrepresented science to the public and thus created another straw man that scientifically-ignorant (and philosophy-of-science ignorant) “thinkers” and public “intellectuals” label as real science and have become overzealous in combating it.

Creating these ugly straw men have misrepresented both science and philosophy. We can be more sophisticated thinkers than this. So, please quit emasculating philosophy and science.

Next up. In Part II, I will further define, discuss, and dissect the concepts of Scientism and pseudo-philosophy. This is, in a large way, a part of the good old demarcation problem in philosophy of science. It is a pretty touchy subject.

 

References:

Churchland, Paul M. “1. The Continuity of Philosophy and the Sciences.” Mind & Language 1.1 (1986): 5-14.

Daniel, Dennett. “Darwin’s dangerous idea.” (1995).

Pigliucci, Massimo. “The borderlands between science and philosophy: an introduction.” The Quarterly review of biology83, no. 1 (2008): 7-15.

Pigluicci, Massimo. “Rationally Speaking: Lawrence Krauss: Another Physicist with an Anti-philosophy Complex.” Rationally Speaking. N.p., 25 Apr. 2012. Web. 6 July 2018. <https://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2012/04/lawrence-krauss-another-physicist-with.html&gt;.

 

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