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Saturday, April 14, 2018

Philosophy’s first steps | History of Ideas - Aeon

Photo: J L Schellenberg
"Science asks and answers its big questions, so why is philosophy taking its time? Because it’s only just getting started" says J L Schellenberg,  professor of philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University and adjunct professor of philosophy at Dalhousie University, both in Nova Scotia, Canada.
At the quarry. 
Photo: Romano Cagnoni/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Philosophers periodically fret about the apparent lack of progress in their discipline. The fact that science – always the comparator in these discussions – has been humming along so nicely doesn’t exactly help. By discovering its methods and unifying a lot of us around them, science has figured out how to get human behaviours connected to the larger physical environment in ways that yield information about it, information that we can use to rocket off to the Moon or just bring pleasure to our ever-curious prefrontal cortex. Philosophy, by comparison, seems to have little to brag about.

A number of attempts have recently been made to dispel the fretting. David Papineau, writing in The Times Literary Supplement in June 2017, suggests that philosophy’s problems involve paradoxes so difficult for us to unravel that we should expect its progress to be far less rapid than progress in science. And in Philosophical Progress: In Defence of a Reasonable Optimism (2017), Daniel Stoljar argues that although we return to the same philosophical topics time and again, the questions we ask about those topics change from one time to another, and are progressively being answered.

Such solutions to the problem of philosophy’s progress are well worth considering. But all of them – mine will be another – face fundamental criticisms. Some propose that the whole idea of making progress toward the truth gets philosophy wrong. Rather, philosophy’s job is to help us respond effectively to social and political issues, such as those involving race, gender or inequality, or to deepen the gravitas of our culture, or to help us achieve the examined life. Consider the latter time-honoured goal, for example. If this is what philosophy is for, then it makes progress one person at a time, and can do so even if people successively grapple with much the same questions and answers, with no answers ever designated as the ‘right’ ones.

But can’t philosophy do all of these jobs and be a search for the truth about the Big Questions, as many philosophers – myself included – suppose it to be? Whole ways of doing philosophy would have to be sent packing or provided with a new identity if that were not so. Here it’s good to remember how wide and deep is the curiosity that churns beneath our skulls. As Aristotle says in the first sentence of his Metaphysics, all human beings by nature desire to understand. And it appears that not everything we want to understand is addressed by science. Questions rather different from those of science fill philosophy’s textbooks.

We might now be advised to look at history, which (so it might seem) reveals little continuity in the search for answers to philosophy’s questions of the sort presupposed by the notion of progress. As Carlos Fraenkel observes in his reply to Papineau, also in The Times Literary Supplement, the naturalistic worldview of many contemporary analytical philosophers is rather different from that of the Greeks, preventing what we do from contributing progressively improved enlargements on their themes.

This point is not decisive, however, since joint intellectual concerns – and thus the required continuity – can be discerned by moving to the most general level of investigation. Here we find what Stoljar calls philosophical topics. In an online article, he mentions three of them: ‘the relation between the mind and the body, the scope and nature of human knowledge, the objectivity of morality’. In any case, Ancient Greek philosophy had its own naturalists, the pre-Socratic Atomists. And the idea of the Atomists that reality can be Many as well as One – though a response to ancient notions that we might regard as outlandish, and though it in part leads into modern physics – could easily come up for discussion in a modern course on metaphysics, given the interests and terms of debate currently found in that sub-field of philosophy.

The reference to modern physics reminds us of a commonly cited fact – that philosophy came first and gave birth to science – that could in its own way seem to delegitimise or quickly answer the progress question. Didn’t philosophy lose its truth-related raison d’être after that generous act, having handed the baton to the sciences? Haven’t all the questions in its textbooks gradually migrated into scientific textbooks?...

Homo Deus: 
 A Brief History of Tomorrow
And maybe we won’t need all that time. In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015), Yuval Noah Harari speculates how future versions of AI such as IBM’s Watson or programs developed by Google might give us systems that know us and our problems far better than we do ourselves: ‘As time goes by, the databases will grow, the statistics will become more accurate, the algorithms will improve and the decisions will be even better.’

Source: Aeon