Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Thoughts On a Tenured Philosopher, Segue Into What Philosophy Is

I have come into possession of an essay by a tenured philosopher. Since I take issue with all of his conclusions, and he's much older, more experienced, and presumably has more effective critics, I've decided I have to be quite thorough in describing how he is wrong. It was terrifyingly easy.

Like Mencius says, it's like beating up an old man. Yet, I find myself compelled to do so. (Philosophy in everything; what does this mean for free will?) That might make me a sadist, if I thought he might ever actually read this.

The fact that this man receives tenure, that his thoughts are considered anything but babbled garbage, is extremely worrying. It is my hope that this essay will help me understand how anyone can dodge the ten seconds of thought it takes to destroy his arguments.

Despite this, he starts off with a strong statement,
"I'm going to come right out and say it: after all this time as a student, and then as a graduate student, and then as a professor of philosophy, I still have absolutely no idea what philosophy is, and therefore what it is I am supposed to be doing."
This is a statement of fact, it's true, (indeed he'd be hard pressed to mistake it) and definitely interesting and relevant. Let's see what he makes of it.
"But it is that thing that I can do because I am a philosopher that a surgeon, or an archeologist, or a thoughtful sales clerk cannot do, because they are not philosophers, that remains elusive."
First, I'd have to say that a thoughtful sales clerk is a philosopher. To be otherwise is to say that philosophy is irrelevant to sales clerks, much as astronomy is irrelevant to sales clerks. This seems to grate on our intuitive definition of philosophy, and indeed I can't see Dr. Smith agreeing with it. But indeed it's a question that needs answering; what is the difference between a sales clerk, and a philosophical sales clerk?
"Well, one might reply, there's "critical thinking." But this is something that, in the ideal situation, any active participant in the civic life of a free society would be able to employ in reading the newpaper, listening to the speeches of politicians, etc."
Assuming that critical thinking is indeed a necessary part of a philosopher, all he's argued is that philosophical skill is relevant to everyone. Again, I'm not sure why he'd argue the opposite - that philosophy is less important or relevant than everyone thinks it is.

By contrast, for me to prove that critical thinking isn't philosophical, I'd first have to know what philosophy is. Yet, the whole point of philosophy is for it to be important, which means any definition of philosophy can be held to this property, and discarded if it doesn't meet it. If we empirically find that philosophers aren't doing important things, then we've found that philosophers haven't been doing philosophy.
"Finally, of course, there's the stuff about God and the soul, which used to be the stock-in-trade of philosophy and which philosophy still can't really dispense with, in spite of its general awkwardness around the topics. There I am certainly as ignorant as every other human being is and always has been."
For the first sentence, I'm first going to talk about metaphysics.

There's two perspectives on metaphysics. First, it's simply the stuff that's beyond physics - things that exist and are important to us, but aren't strictly physical.

Second, it's the stuff that's strictly beyond physics - things that are irrelevant to physics, and which physics is irrelevant to.

The problem is that modern science has, in the form of physicalism, completely tamed the first definition and completely annihilated the second. Everything that interact with physics must share the rules that physical things follow, (otherwise the interaction would be inconsistent between the sides) and if they share the rules they must be physical. (Actually, they simply must be consistent with physics, which doesn't necessarily mean they must be physical, but it does mean they can be interacted with and somehow studied.)

Since our bodies are physical, everything we interact with must somehow come through physics. The first definition collapses to just 'physics' and the second is ruled out entirely.

In short, yes we can dispense with this God stuff if we want, and the only reason for the awkwardness is the fact that you refuse to admit this. Or, we can not dispense with it, and use the lessons of physicalism to deal with the awkwardness. It's all the same to me.

For the second sentence, every human being? Always? Those are some pretty categorical and important conclusions. Can Dr. Smith back those up? At all? Surely, for something so certain, there's a rigorous logical reason for it, which means it's not just some accident. (Oh wait, as we'll see below, logic is childish. Hmm.)
"Now I've read countless books filed under "philosophy." I've thought about what these books have to say, and I've written as much as I've been able in response. But I don't remember ever having "done" philosophy. I don't think I belong to the same world as one capable of saying that."
So, despite the fact that Dr. Smith can't define philosophy, or indeed mentioned any of the necessary traits, or even any of the necessary exclusions (what philosophy definitely can't be defined as) he knows that he's never 'done' philosophy. Either this means his completely subjective impression of philosophy is accurate, or it means he's got a hidden definition of 'doing' philosophy.
"I am about as interested in it as I am in organic chemistry, and rather less than I am in neolithic burial mounds. And, well, vita brevis ..."
That may just mean, Dr. Smith, that you're not actually interested in philosophy. It's far from a given that you are, in fact, a philosopher, especially as you cannot define your job. Despite this fact,
"So then why not just say that having expert knowledge in philosophy of mind is a sufficient but not necessary condition for being a philosopher, and that there is a cluster of such bodies of expert knowledge, with family resemblances between them, and that is what makes up philosophy?"
is obviously true. Philosophy of mind is most likely a sub-discipline. (If you haven't read the article, the sentences after this one are quite relevant but I have no specific response; they stand on their own.)

They can be mostly summarized by this out of order quote;
"Richard Rorty is at least right to say that what philosophy departments offer fails largely to live up to the sense that newcomers have that the discipline ought to be doing something rather more, well, important."
Which sets the stage for this gem:
"I am not saying that curriculum decisions should be turned over to the students. That would be a disaster."
Let me rephrase; "I am not saying that we should let the student choose what they learn. That would be a disaster." No, the only disaster here is that someone actually thinks this man isn't criminally insane.

Let me rephrase again: "Curiosity is a very bad thing to follow, especially in a university, double especially in philosophy. We should do everything we can to stamp it out."

Again: "The students are stupid, ignorant, and will only damage themselves if we let them decide for themselves. We are special, enlightened, and godlike, and the only way for the poor students to end up with a semblance of rationality."

Do these rephrasings make sense? The first must, but what about the other two? Well, look at the public schools. If you can find any contradiction, any at all, praise it to the skies because it's quite the rare bird.

Much as the issues with *'academic integrity' and cheating*(stars to remind me to link to an upcoming post) are actually about authority, this is also just about authority. The problem is that if the students don't feel like they're learning philosophy, the department's authority is threatened. That is the only real issue for them.

His cracks about not knowing what philosophy is, even after all this time being taught by enlightened beings such as he himself now is, puts the lie to this philosophy. The worshipped experts, given free reign, are either incapable of, or refrain from, answering basic questions their students ask about the field.

Similarly, if we aren't to let students choose what they learn in a field, why let them choose a field at all? This kind of contradiction is what makes this poor soul say things like,
"There's formal logic, but if I agree with Heidegger on anything it is that logic, like shortpants, is for schoolboys."
Which is preposterous. Critical thinking without logic is like a beach without water; the definition is incoherent.

Similarly, if logic is useless, we need to replace it with something, and rather badly. We seem to be using it all over the place. I bet Heidegger didn't simply state his proposition, but attempted to support it. How did he do so without logic?

Yes, I do know his argument is about 'formal logic' not just 'logic.' This is also incoherent. Formal logic is not somehow ineffably different from regular logic. Either the conclusions follow from the premises, or they don't.

Interestingly, while he can't think worth a damn, he is capable of gathering good evidence. He says,
"Again, the only common threads seem to be sociological, rather than doctrinal. We recognize each other by our ability to rattle off the names of philosophy professors who have become major public personalities; to note "where they're at" now, Harvard, Oxford, etc.; perhaps to mention that we've heard how much they get paid."
"There is also professional humor, of course...
It is palliative, occupational humor, like Dilbert, or like a bumpersticker on a union van that reads "Electricians Conduit Better": a futile effort to overcome the poverty of a life that has been reduced to and identified with the career that sustains it."
"What used to be called "natural philosophy" and has since been parted out into the various science departments is, in general, fascinating. It asks whether frogs emerge de novo from slime, and whether astral influx is responsible for the growth of crystals. I know in advance the answer to both of these questions, but I can't shake the feeling that reading these texts, and witnessing their authors struggling with these questions, is more edifying, and more important, than seeking to solve the problems that happen to be on the current disciplinary agenda."
The miracle is that he recognizes that these are actually significant. Yes, it is more important. Why the hell can't a tenured philosopher actually go the next step and tell us why?

I can. That's why I'll never achieve tenure, and know better than to try.

Can someone please explain to me what the following is supposed to mean? I would like to critique it, as I suspect there's nonsense in there, but I can't work out a coherent theory of what he's trying to say.
"Of course, as Steven Shapin -- that truly brilliant outside observer of philosophy's "doings" -- has said, anti-philosophy, like philosophy, is the business of the philosophers. Periodically, after a long spell of failed system-building and bottom-heavy foundationalism, some guy comes along with a Ph.D. in philosophy and says: Philosophy! Who needs it! Rorty is a good recent example, though certainly just the latest in a long line. Diogenes of Sinope, in his own way, eating garbage and pleasuring himself in the agora, was out to show what a waste of time it is to theorize instead of simply to live, to live! There are plenty of people who go much further, such as those who drop out of grad school after one semester because they got a B+ they didn't like, and go into investment banking and spend their lives berating those who waste theirs in the Ivory Tower. Now that is anti-philosophy. Rorty and Diogenes, on the other hand, remain susceptible to Shapin's jab. They are insiders, and their denunciations only work because their social identities were already secured through a demonstration of concern for and interest in philosophy."
There's definitely something rotten in the state of Denmark. It's been mentioned and noticed before, and even partially examined. So, it is clearly necessary for someone to define philosophy. Since no one else seems to be doing it, it will have to be me.

Philosophy is the study of meaning. By contrast to all the sciences, which attempt only to describe what happens, philosophy attempts to coherently derive meaning and value, and apply it consistently to new situations. Both the practical sense, in that "The fact that we can detect decision seven seconds before you can means that free will doesn't exist," and the more transcendent meaning, "Having no free will is meaningless. It should not make you happy, or sad, because the situation before and after you found this out is the same. Whatever you felt before was accurate, and it is still accurate." The essential question, "What is the meaning of life?" though vague, tells us that the thing philosophers are looked to for is meaning. That is our purpose.

The reason a philosopher needs logic and critical thinking is simply that meaning cannot be objectively measured or verified; as a result, all the failings of human thought that science is supposed to remedy are unavoidably relevant. Riven of proper experiment, the only remaining method is incredible heights of logical rigor and ability.

Does this definition make sense? When people say, "My philosophy is..." does replacing philosophy with system of meaning leave the sentence sensible? Can the saying, "Be philosophical about it," sensibly be replaced by, "There's a different meaning you can assign to these events,"?

As a result of this necessarily exceptional logical aptitude, a philosopher is often capable of criticizing a wide range of topics and fields, simply on their internal consistency. This ability is what leads us to confusion as to the domain of philosophy. When Dr. Smith talks about how everyone should be able to think critically, this is because a skilled philosopher is useful to every field, not just on the results of philosophy, but because the essential skillset is relevant to everyone.

That's what being a philosopher means.

Some other definitions, and why they don't work.

"Physicalism is a philosophical position..." Physicalism isn't a philosophical position. What they're saying is that it's an arguable consequence of physics being math-based. This is a direct and objective consequence; either it's true, or it isn't, and it can in principle be tested.

Specifically it's the statement that to interact with physics is to make a thing physical, because the rules of interaction have to be common, as contradictions don't exist, and the rules of interaction with physical things are all physical.

Physicalism is something that can, and should be, tested, not argued. Even though it is arguable, at some point it will not be. The thing about meaning is that it depends entirely on the mind; meaning does not exist without minds to comprehend it; and only things internal to the mind can be used to investigate it. As a non-obvious result, meaning can always be argued, though it can be difficult to argue coherently against a good philosopher. If nothing else, things can mean different things to different people, for example a dollar's meaning to the poor versus to the rich, or what pregnancy means for the mother as compared to the father, even though the physical result of the fact of pregnancy are the same for each. The consequences of physicalism, by contrast, are exactly the same for everyone.

From Graham; "Aristotle's goal was to find the most general of general principles. The examples he gives are convincing: an ordinary worker builds things a certain way out of habit; a master craftsman can do more because he grasps the underlying principles. The trend is clear: the more general the knowledge, the more admirable it is. But then he makes a mistake—possibly the most important mistake in the history of philosophy. He has noticed that theoretical knowledge is often acquired for its own sake, out of curiosity, rather than for any practical need. So he proposes there are two kinds of theoretical knowledge: some that's useful in practical matters and some that isn't. Since people interested in the latter are interested in it for its own sake, it must be more noble. So he sets as his goal in the Metaphysics the exploration of knowledge that has no practical use."

This is, as I mentioned earlier, the discredited version of metaphysics. If the thing is useless, as we understand from studying physicalism, then the thing does not exist. If it has no interactions with us, it cannot be studied, and there's no point in trying to investigate it seriously, because it will never interact with us.

It can be a good game for philosophers, to try to come up with a consistent set of consequences for particular assumptions. "Assume the universe is watched, in violation of Newton's Third Law. What are the consequences for this watching universe?" "Is logic universal or trans-universal? Does every possible reality have to obey logic, and what would a reality that doesn't obey logic look like?" By assumption, the answers to all these questions are meaningless to us; there is no possible interaction. It is metaphysics. To investigate this is a game, and nothing more.

It is also a delicate point. Consider;

"Assume there are not four, but six forces in the universe. The other two have always perfectly cancelled each other out, which is why we haven't discovered them. What does that mean?"

There are, in fact, useful reasons to consider this. For one, perhaps there is an interaction, that doesn't naturally occur, that would unbalance these forces. Also, if it's meaningful to talk about these forces, as it is by assumption, then there are several consequences. For instance, there would be other universes where these forces don't cancel out, which means there are other universes, which we may be able to reach, as their forces and ours are similar, which means that a coherent and symmetric transformation between the systems may be possible.

It's similar to asking what the universe would be like if it had no edge. It helps us understand what exactly our particular situation actually means.

I didn't get to mention that I'm thinking of this guy like a product of Orthanc; twisted and grotesque. This is because of the unholy alliance between intellectuals and the state, which has persisted for millennia. You can see this corruption operating right now, on physics.

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