In part because of my growing obsession with the mind-body problem, I’ve been hobnobbing with philosophers a lot lately (in addition to the usual jibber-jabbering with colleagues at Stevens Institute, such as my pal Garry Dobbins). Over the last 15 months, I’ve attended several conferences with philosophical themes (see links below for posts on these meetings and on miscellaneous philosophical topics), eavesdropped on graduate seminars, interviewed prominent philosophers and joined a philosophy salon in New York City. [See Postscript.]

These interactions have me pondering, once again, the old philosophical conundrum: What is philosophy? What is its purpose? Its point? The traditional answer is that philosophy seeks truth. But several prominent scientists, notably Stephen Hawking, have contended that philosophy has no point, because science, a far more competent truth-seeking method, has rendered it obsolete.

But can something pleasurable be pointless? I enjoy philosophy when it’s well done--hell, even sometimes when it’s not, for the same reason I sometimes enjoy lousy films. Figuring out what makes bad philosophy bad can help you understand what makes good philosophy good. [See Post-postscript.]

So what makes good philosophy good? What makes it valuable? We wrestled with these questions last year in my philosophy salon when we considered a fascinating paper by David Chalmers, “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?”

Chalmers is almost comically passive-aggressive in the paper, veering between defiance and doubt. He opens by insisting that “obviously” philosophy achieves some progress, but the rest of his paper undercuts that modest assertion.

He concedes that whereas scientists do converge on certain answers, “there has not been large collective convergence to the truth on the big questions of philosophy.” A survey of philosophers carried out by Chalmers and a colleague revealed divisions on big questions: What is the relationship between mind and body? How do we know about the external world? Does God exist? Do we have free will?

Philosophers’ attempts to answer such questions, Chalmers remarks, “typically lead not to agreement but to sophisticated disagreement.” That is, progress consists less in defending truth claims than in casting doubt on them. Chalmers calls this “negative progress.” [See Post-post-postscript.]

Chalmers suggests that philosophers’ methods keep improving, and that these refinements constitute progress of a kind. But if improved methods of argumentation still aren’t yielding truth, do they really count as progress? That’s like equating scientific progress with advances in telescopes and microscopes, regardless of whether these instruments discover viruses or pulsars. If philosophers can’t reach agreement on anything, why keep arguing? [See Post-post-post-postscript.]

Chalmers resists the claim—advanced by Colin McGinn, among others--that philosophy’s major problems, notably the mind-body problem, are intractable. Philosophers, Chalmers insists, must keep “doing our best to come up with those new insights, methods and concepts that might finally lead us to answering the questions.”

This is less a reasoned position than an expression of faith. Chalmers resembles an officer exhorting his weary troops to keep charging forward, when even he suspects the battle is unwinnable.

After mulling over Chalmers’s paper and listening to professionals argue about it, I reached several conclusions: 1. Philosophers aren’t necessarily the best judges of what they do. 2. Philosophers could use advice from a friendly outsider. (“With friends like this jerk…,” some philosophers will surely think.) 3. Philosophers should consider the possibility that discovering truth is not their strength and focus on other goals.

In subsequent posts, I’ll spell out ways in which philosophy—even if it can’t yield insights into reality as deep and durable as natural selection, the second law of thermodynamics and quantum mechanics--can make itself useful. It can serve as an art form, moral guide, spiritual path or even—as I will argue in Part II of this series--a competitive sport.

Postscript: Except for me, the token amateur, all of the eight or so people who show up for the philosophy salon have advanced training in philosophy and most are honest-to-god professors of philosophy. I’m always enchanted when I meet a professional philosopher, just as I am when I encounter someone making a living as a glass-blower, another wonderfully archaic profession.

*Post-postscript: Touring Italy in 1982, I stumbled on a tiny, decrepit museum filled with Renaissance paintings of religious figures: God, angels, the Virgin Mary, Christ, disciples and saints. There was something odd about the faded, cracked paintings. Finally it hit me: the paintings were bad, or, more precisely, not good, and yet they had somehow been preserved for half a millennium. How often do you see crappy 500-year-old paintings hanging in museums? These were rarities! I studied them more carefully than if they were da Vincis or Michelangelos, trying to figure out what, precisely, made them so mediocre. Was it the unpersuasive faces? The cartoonish landscapes? Or some ineffable holistic quality? That little museum gave me one of the most memorable aesthetic experiences I’ve ever had. Pondering the bad (art, philosophy, films, etc.) helps us grok the good.

Post-post-postscript: Chalmers’s phrase “negative progress” reminds me of comments that Clifford Geertz, who sometimes sounded more like a philosopher than an anthropologist, made about his field. Geertz once said that "progress" in anthropology "is marked less by a perfection of consensus than by a refinement of debate. What gets better is the precision with which we vex each other."

Post-post-post-postscript: Members of my philosophy salon disagreed over whether methods of argumentation keep improving. One philosopher said he was struck, reading papers from the 1960s and 1970s, by how poorly reasoned they were. Another mused that he had precisely the opposite reaction; older papers seemed smarter than newer ones.

Further Reading:

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

The Rise of Neo-Geocentrism

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

Dispatch from the Desert of Consciousness Research, Part 1

Can Integrated Information Theory Explain Consciousness?

Bayes's Theorem: What's the Big Deal?

Are Brains Bayesian?

How Would AI Cover an AI Conference?

Dear "Skeptics," Bash Homeopathy and Bigfoot Less, Mammograms and War More

My Bunk-Bashing Diatribe at a Deepak Chopra Conference

The Singularity and the Neural Code

Does Evolution Have a "Higher Purpose"?

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

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"

Physicist George Ellis Knocks Physicists for Knocking Philosophy, Falsification, Free Will

The Philosophy of Guessing Has Harmed Physics, Expert Says

Hawking's "new" theory of everything is the same old CRAP

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

Book by Biologist Jerry Coyne Goes Too Far in Denouncing Religion, Defending Science

Science Will Never Explain Why There's Something Rather Than Nothing.

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