My recent five-post series, “What Is Philosophy’s Point?” (see all links in Further Philosophical Reading), has provoked reactions from philosophers online and via email to me. Below is a sampling. –John Horgan

Bruce Glymour via email:

Dear John, Having just read your last posting on “Cross-Check,” I am once again completely bemused by philosophers’ inability to adequately represent their own discipline.  And unfortunately, you aren’t helping: with friends like these, indeed.  Let me briefly list some progress in the truth-seeking department made by philosophers over the past 2 and change millennia.  I begin with some contributions to formal knowledge: propositional logic, categorical logic, quantifier logic, modal logic (I forbear mention of specific contributors, there are so many), quantifications of chance (aka probability; see Pascal), decision theory (see Pascal, but also more recently Dick Jeffrey, Isaac Levi, and Teddy Seidenfeld, inter alia), important elements of game theory and and applications of it, e.g. to the theory of signaling (David Lewis and Brian Skyrms), formal learning theory (see Hillary Putnam and Kevin Kelly), and formal theories of causation (see e.g. the work of Peter Spirtes).  I continue with some contributions to empirical knowledge, noting first the invention of the mechanical and empirical philosophies (aka science) themselves, but continue with: reliable, accurate estimates of the circumference of the earth (Eratosthenes), simulation results in decision and game theory (again see Skyrms and his students) and various results in genetics and neuroscience obtained by employing automated causal discovery algorithms (Spirtes again), phenomena regarding judgments of actual causation (see e.g. Christopher Hitchcock), careful working out of the relevant senses in which group selection is possible (Elliott Sober and Samir Okasha), and contributions to the mathematical characterization of developmental constraints (Simon Hutteger).  I close with some contributions to our moral knowledge: utilitarian moral theory (Mill and Bentham), the modern ideas of human and civil rights (Locke among others), the idea of market capitalism (Smith), diagnoses of political injustice and the moral equality of races and genders (Frederick Douglass and Simone de Beauvoir among many, many others), the development of a proper moral understanding of evil in general, and genocide and the holocaust in particular (Weisel and Arendt to name but two), and the articulation of moral constraints on science as a social institution (Heather Douglass, Gillian Barker, and Philip Kitcher, for examples).  These are but a tithe of the results, and less than a tithe of the contributors, and yet this short list is sufficient, I think, to demonstrate that philosophy does indeed make progress, and more, discovers truth in doing so.

I think those who charge that philosophy makes no progress really mean only that answers to philosophical questions just raise more philosophical questions, and so the damned philosophers never finish their job.  And that is of course right.  But it is a no less correct observation about science, or mathematics, or, for that matter, poetry.  The critical force of the observation when made of philosophy, then, rests entirely on a prejudicial view of philosophical questions.  And such prejudices are fine.  We all have prejudices, and according to most Socrates and those of us who follow him are objectionable in any number of ways, not least in asking impertinent questions.  But it is wrong, intellectually dishonest, to pretend the dislike of philosophy has some basis other than the dislike of philosophic questions and those who ask them.  Too often, I think, our scientific critics are models of intellectual honesty when doing their science, but fall far short of that ideal when turning a critical eye to other domains, philosophy most especially included.  Sometimes of course our critics mean merely to say that much or most of the philosophy they read is gunk.  And I do not mean to insist that even most of what is produced by professional philosophers is good stuff.  But neither do we judge science by the worst, or even the most, of what it produces; we judge it by the best of what it produces, and so should we judge philosophy.  And the best of what philosophy has produced is true, and far, far more important than any result Hawking and fellow critics will ever deliver.

Leiter Reports, a philosophy blog, run by Brian Leiter, posted responses to my first and second columns and to the next two. Below are excerpts of comments from Leiter and others:

Brian Leiter:

[Horgan] concludes Part 2 by suggesting maybe the point of philosophy is like the point of a martial art. I favor a more plausible hypothesis, due to Nietzsche perhaps unsurprisingly, namely, that philosophers are "advocates who resent that name," who defend their non-rational "hunches" and "inspirations" "with reasons they have sought after the fact" (sec. 5, Beyond Good and Evil).    Maybe not all philosophers all the time are like that--some are like Nietzsche's "scholars" (Gelehrten), whose real interests in life lie elsewhere (in family or money or politics), and for whom it is a matter of indifference whether they become a good professional philosopher "or a fungus expert or a chemist" (sec. 6).  But "every great philosophy" is "a type of involuntary and unself-conscious memoir" in which "the moral (or immoral) intentions...constitute the true living seed from which the whole plant has always grown" (sec 6).  Kant at least had the decency to admit that (to limit reason, to make room for faith!). 

Douglas W. Portmore:

I think that Horgan is looking at it all wrong. He would say, for instance, that the fact that there hasn't been convergence among philosophers on any one moral theory shows that there's been little to no progress made by moral philosophers like myself. But this is to assume that what moral philosophers like myself have been trying to do is to figure out what the correct moral theory is. But this is not how I see things. Which is the correct (or, at least, which is the most plausible) moral theory will depend on which moral theory coheres best with the rest of all human inquiry, which will include science, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, etc. And I don't see myself as being (or even being capable of being) sufficiently knowledgeable about all of human inquiry to be in a position to figure out which moral theory coheres best with it. My goal, then, is much more modest: it is to do only some narrow reflective equilibrium -- to say work out how best to formulate consequentialism and to better understand what its implications are, what makes it attractive, and what potential problems it may have. And it seems to me that there has been as much convergence among moral philosophers specializing in consequentialist ethics concerning what that theory's implications, problems, and attractions are as there has been, say, among evolutionary biologists specializing in human evolution concerning what the implications, problems, and attractions of the theory that our ancestor's propensity to use violence is what's largely responsible for our ancestors evolving very differently than the ancestors of modern day apes did. So it's a bit strange to assess progress in science by looking at one narrow area of human inquiry (science) and looking for convergence among the specialists within this narrow area and then assess progress in philosophy, not by looking at convergence among specialists working in a similarly narrow area of human inquiry (say, consequentialist ethics), but by seeing if philosophers cohere in their world views about everything from the nature of scientific laws to whether it's permissible to flip the switch in the Trolley Problem. Do any of us think that scientists have a greater degree of convergence on such a wide range of topics in human inquiry than we do? So why do we assume that philosophers haven't made progress just because they've failed to converge on comprehensive world view? If convergence on a comprehensive world view (that includes not just scientific views but views about ethics, the existence of God, the nature of our minds, etc.) is required for progress, then I doubt scientists have made any more progress on this than we (non-scientists) have. Indeed, it may be that scientists have reached less convergence on such a comprehensive world view than philosophers have. So it seems to me that it's entirely artificial to group moral philosophers with almost all other types of philosophers and expect them to converge on the same world view but not to group natural "philosophers" (i.e., scientists) with other types of "philosophers" and expect them to converge on the same world view.

Gary Gutting:

Here's a rough sketch of the view that I've developed over the last few years: Philosophy has progressed if its centuries of reflection and argument have produced an increasing body of knowledge. Of course, there’s a lot that philosophers don’t know, including answers to the deep questions that have perennially defined the philosophical enterprise. We don’t know whether God exists, whether consciousness survives death, whether moral freedom is compatible with causal determination, whether utilitarianism is a better account of ethics than deontologism.

Nonetheless, in the course of their unsuccessful grappling with these “ultimate questions”, philosophers have, nonetheless, developed a significant body of knowledge that provides a distinct epistemic advantage to anyone who wants to think about these questions. The most important body of philosophical knowledge consists of the numerous distinctions that have arisen and been extensively refined and developed in the course of trying to answer the ultimate questions. Although there is room for quarrels about specific cases, most philosophers do agree that we rightly make distinctions between, for example, causality/compulsion, knowledge/true opinion, functional/phenomenal concepts, necessary/gratuitous evils, appearance/reality, actions/events, necessary/a priori truth, logical/epistemic possibility, meaning/reference, etc., etc. There may, of course, be disagreements regarding the details of just how to explicate the distinctions. But philosophical discussions have made substantial progress in understanding them. Even when traditional distinctions such as analytic/synthetic and fact/value have been called into question, there remains a range of examples where they remain valid. We can, as philosophers, confidently assure non-philosophers that all these distinctions express important truths and can explain in considerable detail what we have learned about them.

Why are philosophical distinctions important, given then they haven't yielded compelling answers to the basic questions that drive the philosophical enterprise? Because people in general—including most philosophers—have convictions regarding ultimate questions about God, morality, freedom, knowledge, etc., even though these convictions are highly disputed and admit of no decisive justification. Moreover, many of us are at some points interested in better understanding the meaning and the consequences of these convictions—and in defending them against objections. As we philosophers know from encounters with students and even with experts who lack an adequate philosophical background, discussions of convictions quickly bog down unless they take account of relevant philosophical distinctions. People who want to think about what they believe need the distinctions that philosophers have developed and refined. Such distinctions constitute the knowledge that philosophy has achieved over the centuries, and this continuing achievement constitutes philosophical progress.

Charles Pigden:

I would suggest that there is indeed progress in philosophy in that true and defensible answers to philosophical questions have sometimes been arrived at. But though such true and defensible answers often exist there is not much convergence on them

a) because the correct answers are often objectionable posing a threat to human self-importance, to ideological interests and to the self-images of many philosophers


b) because if the Big Questions were recognized at solved this would put a good many philosophers out of a job at least so far as their research activities were concerned.

Consider the response of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy philosophers, Majikthise and Vroomfondel, to the threat posed by the computer Deep Thought, which has been designed to answer the Question of Life, the Universe and Everything:

"We are quite definitely here as representatives of the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Thinking Persons, and we want this machine off, and we want it off now!"

"What's the problem?" said Lunkwill.

"I'll tell you what the problem is mate," said Majikthise, "demarcation, that's the problem ….You just let the machines get on with the adding up and we'll take care of the eternal verities thank you very much. You want to check your legal position you do mate. Under law the Quest for Ultimate Truth is quite clearly the inalienable prerogative of your working thinkers. Any bloody machine goes and actually finds it and we're straight out of a job aren't we? I mean what's the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?"

Aaron Preston:

If Horgan's criterion of progress is "yielding truth," then I simply don't see how one can say that science makes better progress than philosophy - not, at least, without begging important philosophical questions about the nature of truth and justification (etc.). Given that logically-decisive empirical confirmations and disconfirmations are, as a rule, not to be had in the sciences, it's really not clear what leads to the sort of convergence of opinion that characterizes the sciences over-against philosophy. It is not clear whether these convergences have a rational, let lone a scientific basis, or whether they emerge from extra-scientific or even non-rational factors present in the relevant psycho-social milieux.

So far as I can see, Horgan's claim is defensible only on some sort of broadly pragmatist understanding of truth (and an attendant instrumentalist view of science). If enabling us to achieve our practical ends (e.g., via the accurate prediction and control of nature) is the test of truth, then yes science far outstrips philosophy in "yielding truth." But this is a contentious *philosophical* position on the nature of truth. If we hold a more ordinary view of truth as, e.g., representing (some part of) reality as it actually is, it remains an open question whether science has made any progress at all in terms of "yielding truth," let alone more progress than philosophy.

The fact that we see considerably more convergence of opinion in the sciences than in philosophy may just be a function of scientists being more credulous - when operating within the epistemic confines of the sciences, at least - than philosophers. Harry Prosch suggests (in The Genesis of Twentieth Century Philosophy) that the division between philosophers and scientists was originally grounded in a difference of temperament and/or opinion concerning how seriously to take reasons for doubt/uncertainty, especially concerning empirical evidence. He points out that, of the many great early-modern thinkers who operated both as philosophers and scientists, those who are remembered as philosophers rather than scientists (like Descartes) tended to take skepticism more seriously, and those who are remembered as scientists rather than philosophers (like Newton) tended to be more credulous, at least concerning empirical evidence. It seems to me that he was on to something with this insight, and that the pattern persists today, with philosophers generally being more impressed by the existence of alternative, empirically and/or rationally equivalent interpretations of data (both in and outside of the sciences) than scientists are. Philosophers are more likely to be aware of alternative interpretations, more likely to take them seriously, less likely to be satisfied with purported empirical (or rational) disconfirmations of alternatives, and so on. Yes, we tend to argue more aggressively, but we're also usually more aware of the tenuous nature of our evidence and the correspondingly tentative and provisional nature of the views we argue for. Yes, scientists will acknowledge these things when they have to, but when it comes to the day-to-day practice of science (research, publishing, teaching) they can get away with taking a lot more as "settled" than a philosopher can - but not because it actually has been "settled" in any epistemically respectable way. One rather provocative way to put the point is to say that, contrary to popular belief, the standards of evidence are simply higher among philosophers than among scientists, and this makes it harder to achieve consensus in philosophy.

Nathan Oseroff posted several responses to my series on his blog. Here is an excerpt from his first response:

Anti-intellectualism is a mental contagion. It spreads easily throughout our culture, and we see it in any number of places, e.g. the President-elect. Of course, anyone inoculated from it isn't immediately affected by it, but repeated assaults on our intellectual immune system weaken it, by normalizing behavior that is unacceptable. I assume Horgan did not mean to help normalize anti-intellectualism, but that doesn't exculpate his behavior. I do hope a professional philosopher does have the opportunity to explain to Horgan these elementary issues.

I assume that Horgan is a truth-seeking individual, and desires to get at the truth. However, the denigration of experts in a field shows a mismatch between that truth-seeking behavior (as Horgan likely usually practices) and what little substance can be found in his article, since denigration of experts isn't an appropriate response to befuddlement or confusion over some field.

I don't denigrate scientists, mathematicians or historians when I don't understand a scientific, mathematical or historiographic method; I treat them with the respect they deserve: they are competent truth-seekers; they are epistemic agents that desire the truth, and do their best as members of an epistemic community to get closer to the truth; they know a lot more than I do about science, mathematics and history. I do hope that Horgan believes the same about his own limitations when addressing scientists, mathematicians and historians. But if he acknowledges his limitations in these fields, he should acknowledge his limitations in philosophy as well. Rather than publicly insulting philosophers (and glass-blowers) and denigrating philosophy (and glass-blowing), I suggest that Horgan get in touch with a few philosophers and ask them his questions in private--and not treat philosophers so rudely.

Steven Yates posted a response on his blog, “Lost Generation Philosopher.” Here is an excerpt:

How well argued is the materialist stance? To use a Feyerabendian ploy, has materialism won out not just in much of philosophy but in science itself not because of the superiority of its arguments but because it was able to bully alternatives out of the way? Given the clear absence of a consensus on the status of such problems as mind-body (not that the presence of one would necessarily decide the matter for all time), it doesn’t seem to me materialists are entitled to assume so without much more work. That a Colin McGinn, another of those rare leaders in the post-Rorty world of academic philosophy, finds the mind-body problem “intractable” (whether that is McGinn’s word or Horgan’s) is telling.

By reflecting on the seeming failures or lapses of materialists, and their willingness to “eliminate” what doesn’t fit a worldview to be distinguished from the actual methods and findings of modern science, surely we have found a “point” to doing philosophy, and therefore an answer to, “What Is Philosophy’s Point?” Maybe there is an answer to, What Should Philosophy Do? which combines all four of the above answers in recognizing, clarifying, evaluating, and if necessary, constructing alternatives, to the worldview(s) that prevail in Western civilization.

Garry Dobbins, my colleague at Stevens Institute of Technology, via email:

Those who don't take the trouble to spend the years of study necessary to master the science, who give out as their opinion the claim that global warming is a hoax, are not to be taken seriously.

I myself would not like to think that my considered opinions are justly to be ignored in such a way. How much philosophy has Hawking read? Has he read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit? Or Wittgenstein’s late work? What about Plato’s Theaetetus? If so I’d like to know why, in face of these works, he says philosophy is not concerned with truth? And if not, what can his opinion of philosophy be worth?

Nietzsche and Wittgenstein both observed that language itself seems to suggest to us that things, including our thoughts about things, must be thus and so, in many instances, where in reality the logic, or as they call it “grammar,” is in fact misleading, and things are not, as our thoughts too are not, as we take them to be. Those who think they can take the word “progress” from where it does make clear sense, and then simply stick it to philosophy and expect it to make the same sense, are laboring under precisely such a grammatical illusion. Wittgenstein replies to those who say philosophy makes no “progress” by observing that so “long as there is still a verb "to be" that looks as though it functions in the same way as "to eat" and "to drink," as long as we still have the adjectives "identical," "true," "false," "possible," as long as we continue to talk of a river of time and expanse of space etc., etc., people will keep stumbling over the same cryptic difficulties and staring at something that no explanation seems capable of clearing up.”

Then another point: if the discipline of philosophy aims to produce, and does in some measure succeed in producing greater clarity – as well of whatever we are thinking about and too what in us hinders, obscures, or distorts the quality of our thinking--isn’t this of value? Couldn’t we even and fairly say that the sciences – consider only physics for example – has made what its idolators call “progress” only insofar as, over time, and responsive to new experiences, the likes of an Einstein had the impudence – the word he himself used in this connection – to repudiate the received wisdom in favor of a greater clarity over a wider conceptual landscape?

Then too the word “truth” has rather a checkered history, but in the case of the sciences it isn’t a word that can be used without mystification, for as Thomas Kuhn was not the first to note, Heinrich Hertz having made essentially the same point in the late 19th century, scientific theories can’t be said to be true, at all. They are “models” we use for various purposes, some of them no doubt of great practical interest, and value: but they are not “truths” in any obvious sense of that word.

We find in Aristotle's physics, for example, not a truth or falsehood, but a more or less fruitful way of looking at some things not considered from Descartes', or Einstein's, point of view. Different perspectives reveal to us different things: different features or dimensions of whatever the issue is at hand. And so we might find it more useful to us to study and reflect upon a partial truth than something that is true, without qualification.

Further Philosophical Reading:

What Is Philosophy's Point?, Part 1 (Hint: It's Not Discovering Truth)

What is Philosophy's Point? Part 2. Maybe It's a Martial Art

What Is Philosophy's Point?, Part 3. Maybe It Should Stick to Ethics

What Is Philosophy's Point?, Part 4. Maybe It's Poetry with No Rhyme and Lots of Reason

What Is Philosophy's Point?, Part 5--A Call for "Negative Philosophy"

The Rise of Neo-Geocentrism

The Mind–Body Problem, Scientific Regress and "Woo"

Dispatch from the Desert of Consciousness Research, Part 1

My Modest Proposal for Solving the “Meaning of Life Problem”—and Reducing Global Conflict.

Is Scientific Materialism "Almost Certainly False"?

Why I Don't Dig Buddhism

Meta-Meditation: A Skeptic Meditates on Meditation

Should the Humanities Embrace Scientism?

Can Faith and Science Coexist?

Was Philosopher Paul Feyerabend Really Science's "Worst Enemy"?

What Thomas Kuhn Really Thought about Scientific "Truth"

Is Lawrence Krauss a Physicist, or Just a Bad Philosopher?

Will This Post Make Sam Harris Change His Mind About Free Will?

We Need a New Just-War Theory, Which Aims to End War Forever