A program of the Center for Inquiry
I’d like to teach you all a little saying
And learn the words by heart the way you should
I don’t say I am better than anybody else
But I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good!
“The Farmers and the Cowboys Should Be Friends,” Oklahoma! Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein
There’s been a recent outbreak of philosophy-jeering on the part of some prominent scientists in both the United States and United Kingdom. Whether in books, interviews, or tweets, some of our most high-profile scientists have gone out of their way to opine on the mortal state of philosophy, either declaring its death a thing most devoutly to be wished for or already dancing on its grave.
These gratuitous slams are at odds with the respectful attitudes of such former scientific luminaries as Albert Einstein,1 and they call out for explanation, especially since, almost to a man, the philosophy-jeerers in question are active in the pro-reason secularist movement. The fact that philosophy is, together with science, so essential a resource of reason adds an element of irony to these displays of contempt.
But the recent outbreak of philosophy-jeering is more than ironic. It is:
I’m going to concentrate on the first point: the claim that the pro-reason philosophy-jeerer doesn’t know what the point of philosophy is, which will force me to say what its point actually is.
Here a slight complication presents itself. Because there are divergent approaches to philosophy, no one philosophical mission statement will draw the assent of all philosophers, no more than one scientific mission statement will draw the assent of all scientists.2 I’m going to confine myself to discussing analytic philosophy (an approach that values clarity and precision, à la David Hume and Bertrand Russell, and shares with science an antipathy for self-enclosed and obscure thought-systems, à la Hegel, Sartre, and Derrida), and my reasons for doing so are several.
First, it is the philosophical approach that dominates in both the United States and United Kingdom. So when American and British scientists opine regarding philosophy, this is the kind of philosophy they ought to be discussing. Don’t indict the field by quoting some provocation by Slavoj Žižek. To an analytic philosopher, that is as compelling as indicting modern medicine by citing the failure of homeopathy.
Second, analytic philosophy is the approach that is itself so receptive to science that its scientific orientation can well serve as its defining characteristic. So if the philosophy-jeerer wants to dismiss the entire field, he or she must produce an argument sufficiently strong to undermine the philosophical approach that defines itself in its sympathetic relationship toward science. One undermines a position only by undermining its strongest formulation.
Third, analytic philosophy is the only kind of philosophy I’m prepared to defend. Some of what goes by the name of philosophy degrades into nothing more than ideology, by which I mean a rigid system of ideas that so vehemently rejects any possibility of challenge as to transform conformity to itself into a veritable moral standard. Ideology, claiming for itself the last word, is always fatal to the progress of reason and thus to the progress of philosophy. For the remainder of this essay, when I say “philosophy” I shall therefore mean analytic philosophy. And now to its point.
First, let me say what its point is not: Whatever it is that philosophy is attempting to do with its distinctive set of techniques, it is not attempting to compete with what science accomplishes with its own distinctive set of techniques.
A few words about those scientific techniques, the so-called “scientific method”—although that term is, I think, rather misleading, suggesting that there is a numbered sequence of steps that a scientist goes through, methodically, in order to achieve scientific results. That hardly does justice to the creatively freewheeling character of science, the ways in which it utilizes intuitions and even aesthetic judgments; nor to the widely differing types of cognitive activities, and thus talents, that are required by the scientific enterprise, with variations depending on the kind of problem being pursued. Science is less a method and more a grab-bag utilizing a variety of cognitive capacities: data gathering and analysis, theorizing, modeling, mathematical deduction, and experimentation.
A geologist taking samples in order to determine the physical characteristics of soil and rocks to test for thermal resistance is engaging in quite different mental work from a cognitive scientist building a computer simulation of long-term memory, or a computational biologist sifting through Big Data in order to locate genomic polymorphisms, or a theoretical physicist developing the implications of the eleven dimensions of M theory, or an even more theoretical physicist developing the idea of a multiverse as a solution to the measurement problem in quantum mechanics.
And yet, amid the plurality of scientific activities there is a distinguishing aspect of the scientific enterprise, which has to do with the way in which science self-corrects and the way in which science implicates reality in the self-correction. Science is the enterprise that prods reality to answer us back when we’re getting it wrong.
One might disagree on how the scientific enterprise reacts in the face of reality’s pushback—whether science revises itself gleefully, as in Karl Popper’s depiction, in which all that scientists are really trying to do is falsify their own theories; or if rather the reaction is more in line with Thomas Kuhn’s account in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, with scientists clinging desperately to their cherished paradigms, willfully not seeing the contravening evidence. (Max Planck: “Science advances one funeral at a time.”) But that science does actively provoke reality itself into telling us whether we’re getting it wrong is its sine qua non.
Oh, so you think that simultaneity is absolute, do you? It seems intuitively obvious to you that two events are either simultaneous or not, irrespective of which coordinate systems, moving relative to each other, they happen to be measured in. We’ll just see about that! Relativity theory prodded reality to answer us back and thereby challenge our deep intuition of time flowing at an absolute rate.
It’s a real triumph for our species that we worked out such a grab-bag of techniques—observation, experimentation, theorizing, mathematical description, modeling—in order to modify and even discard some of our most profound intuitions about the nature of reality, about space and time and causality and teleology and individuation, by ingeniously provoking reality to answer us back. This grab-bag has proved powerful, allowing us progressively more insight into the laws of nature, though, of course, every progressive step is provisional; no result stands immune from a revision forced on us by further rebukes from reality that are elicited by those prods we deliberately inflict by way of controlled experiments.
We could even say that there is something ethically virtuous about this enterprise, a “collective virtue” that fortunately doesn’t require any virtue on the part of individual scientific practitioners. Science expresses a humility that is highly appropriate for a pack of evolved apes to cultivate in the face of a reality that wasn’t designed with our cognitive faculties and capacities in mind.
If philosophy set itself up as a competitor to science—if it fancied that its specific techniques could offer a challenge to the grab-bag of techniques that science brings to bear on describing what reality is like—then philosophy would be just as pathetically deluded as the scientific philosophy-jeerer thinks it is. His or her belief that philosophy must view itself as a rival to science is partly based on his or her not being able to conceive what useful intellectual work there can possibly be other than figuring out what exists. What else is human intelligence good for other than describing the nature of what is? Therefore, the philosophy-jeerer concludes, that must be what philosophy is up to—leading to the charge that it is a delusional enterprise.
And then there is a historical fact that also encourages this misinterpretation of what philosophy is up to, namely that philosophers have quite often posed questions that would turn out to be proto-scientific questions. They have speculated regarding questions that would eventually be taken up by scientists who would, using their grab-bag of techniques, make cumulative progress toward answers in which reality itself collaborates, rendering the previous philosophical speculations obsolete.
So it was that all of physics and cosmology and biology used to be contained within the province of philosophers, until the scientific enterprise matured sufficiently to be able to transform them into sciences. Then it was the turn of psychology, and then linguistics, to remove themselves from philosophy’s domain and reinvent themselves as sciences. And so it has gone: the scientific enterprise transforming philosophy’s airy-fairy speculations into a form that allows reality to tell us when we’re wrong—right down to our own scientifically explosive period, when the advancement of cognitive and affective neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have moved human nature itself firmly into the orbit of science.
This is an old story, oft told, sometimes in order to show how scientifically important philosophy is—after all, it poses those science-generating questions—but, in the hands of the contemporary philosophy-jeerer, to show how ultimately futile philosophy is. Philosophy lives only to be made obsolete by science. Philosophy’s role in the business of knowledge is to send up a signal reading Science desperately needed here. And when it makes any noises beyond sending up such a signal, then it’s embarrassing itself, as the advancing frontier of science will soon make clear.
However, preparing the way for science is not the point of philosophy. Philosophers don’t set out to opine prematurely regarding questions that will ultimately be transformed by the empirical sciences. Rather this historical fact is an artifact of what the real point of philosophy is: to maximize our coherence by discovering and resolving the inconsistencies we accrue as we go about trying to get our bearings in the world, which is our distinctively human project. We are the species concerned with getting, in a very broad sense, our bearings. We are concerned with getting a handle on where we are: the nature of the world in which we find ourselves; what we are and how it fits into the rest of the world; and what we are supposed to be about, if anything.
And in the course of this attempt to get our bearings, we ask, broadly speaking, two fundamental questions: What is? and What matters? Posing these questions in pursuit of our getting our bearings is, if not necessary for being human—after all, some are so deprived in their lives as to be concerned almost exclusively with the sustaining of them—at least sufficient. If and when computers start pondering these questions of what is and what matters, and especially if and when they start agonizing over whether they themselves matter, then what we’ll have in our world are non–carbon-based humans, and we’ll be morally obliged to regard them as such.3
By distinguishing between these two general questions I don’t mean to suggest that they can be neatly separated from one another. They are, on the contrary, intimately entwined in complicated ways, the sorting out of which typically falls within the sphere of philosophy. So, for example, what are the kinds of reasons that matter when we are making claims of what is? Epistemology is made from such entanglements. Other ways in which the questions of what is and what matters are entangled with one another should emerge in what I have to say below.
Let’s grant that we’ve got science to best answer what is. To grant this is to grant the truth of naturalism. A strong argument for naturalism falls out from the characterization of science given above. Science is, by definition, the methodology that enlists reality itself as collaborator, and what methodology could possibly compete with so successful a collaboration? And we are, demonstrably, in need of some such collaboration. Just because we have a distinctively human urge to get our bearings doesn’t mean that we’ve evolved brains designed for success in the project. There is ample evidence that we are riddled with innate tendencies to, as David Hume had wonderfully put it, “spread ourselves onto the world.” If we’re to reach justified true beliefs about what is, we’re seriously in need of reality to step in and give us a shove in the right direction—to separate what’s coming from the psychology within from what’s coming from the reality without.4
Are there any kind of similarly effective techniques that philosophy brings to bear on our human project of trying to get our bearings? What are its techniques good for eliciting and discovering?
Inconsistencies: that’s what philosophy’s techniques are good for eliciting and discovering, and so it has been ever since Socrates wandered the agora making such a supreme nuisance of himself that he was finally put to death by the good citizens of Athens. The point of philosophy is to maximize the coherence among the multiplicity of propositions and propositional attitudes that we generate in the course of trying to get our bearings, which is why thought-experiments, counterexamples, conceptual analysis, and formal arguments trying to force all suppressed premises out into the open are such essential techniques of the discipline. These are all techniques designed not to prod reality into answering us back but rather to probe our own internal inconsistencies. Compartmentalized creatures that we are, we cohabit happily with our contradictions. It’s philosophy’s goal to destroy that happiness.
Philosophy shares with science an acknowledgment of human limitations. Like science, there is a collective humility displayed in the enterprise, again, quite fortunately, requiring no humility on the part of individual practitioners. As science humbly recognizes that reality was not designed with our cognitive equipment in mind, so philosophy recognizes that we, who had the audacity to long ago define ourselves as the rational animal, display a remarkable facility for tolerating internal contradictions. For although it may be in our nature to seek to get our bearings, it isn’t in our nature to be coherent in our seeking. For that we require a discipline, a discipline that—just as science does—goes against some of our most natural inclinations and patiently works to undo the fallacies toward which we are so forcefully driven.
Interestingly, there is one recent advance in science that helps to explain why a discipline devoted to rigorously and systematically maximizing coherence is so necessary. I’m referring to evolutionary psychology.
Evolutionary psychology extends the explanatory apparatus of the “selfish gene” to explain many features of human nature, including our being predisposed toward certain propositional attitudes, with which our more deliberating selves might find themselves in conflict. As living organisms we are primed, unthinkingly, to do all we can to thrive; to be more precise, we are primed, unthinkingly, to do all we can to increase the probability that copies of our genes will be perpetuated into future generations.
But we have also evolved to be reason-giving creatures. We offer reasons for our beliefs, and we offer reasons for our actions, and the reasons we are prepared to give to ourselves and to one another in accounting for our beliefs and behavior make no mention of the machinations of the selfish gene. No wonder we evolved into compartmentalized creatures able to withstand incoherence, including moral incoherence, for such compartmentalization serves the purposes of those strategizing genes, which certainly have no stake in our being either rational or moral. But we do, and hence the necessity of a discipline devoted to making us so, which is precisely what philosophy is.
There is some irony in the fact that the very advances in our scientific knowledge of human nature explaining our wondrously elastic facility for faulty reasoning and self-deceptions—yes, even of the smartest among us—should coincide with the dismissal of the discipline devoted to maximizing our coherence. The new sciences of human nature offer enlightening explanations for why our brain, built to protect the self, produces beliefs that preserve our sense of self. I’ve often wondered, when hearing otherwise intelligent people embarrassing themselves while opining on philosophy, whether their own sense of self demands the delegitimizing of a discipline in which they suspect they may not excel.
When I was a graduate student, I was much disposed toward tormenting myself over why I was in a philosophy department rather than a physics department. One moment I was in a class in quantum mechanics, asking questions of my professor to which his answer was usually some variation on Richard Feynman’s “shut up and calculate,” and then the next, or so it sometimes seemed to me, I was a graduate student specializing in philosophy of science. Perhaps I’d been a bit too impetuous in swapping my areas of concentration. In the midst of my crisis, I came across Wilfrid Sellars’s article “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man.” The vision of philosophy Sellars proposed dulled my torment, and I’ve carried it with me ever since—not entirely in the same form in which I’d first encountered it but close enough.
Sellars agrees that the proper agenda of philosophy lies in mediating among simultaneously held points of view with the aim of integrating them into a coherent whole. For Sellars, the philosophical focus is trained on the border between what he calls the “scientific image of man-in-the-world” and the “manifest image of man-in-the-world”: “For the philosopher is confronted not by one complex many- dimensional picture, the unity of which, such as it is, he must come to appreciate; but by two pictures of essentially the same order of complexity, each of which purports to be a complete picture of man-in-the-world, and which, after separate scrutiny, he must fuse into one vision.”
The scientific image is the ever-expanding objective description of us that we derive from our self-correcting scientific theories. Updating to now, this would include a description of us in terms of cognitive and affective neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. Sellars explains the manifest image as the framework of concepts and assumptions and standards “in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world. It is the framework in terms of which, to use an existentialist turn of phrase, man first encountered himself—which is, of course, when he came to be man. For it is no merely incidental feature of man that he has a conception of himself as man-in-the-world, just as it is obvious, on reflection, that if man had a radically different conception of himself, he would be a radically different kind of man.”
We come to our project of trying to get our bearings equipped with a framework, some core of which is so essential that it is necessary for us to possess in order to pursue recognizably human lives. Essential to this framework is our holding ourselves accountable, both to others and to ourselves, for our beliefs and actions. When challenged for why we’ve done A or believe P, we come up with some reason to offer in response—not necessarily a good reason but some reason. And if our reasons are themselves challenged, then we’ll offer reasons for our reasons, acknowledging that all of these aspects of ourselves—our actions, our beliefs, and our reasons for our actions and our beliefs—are subject to evaluation. This view of ourselves as reason-giving creatures, who are thus subject to evaluations, is so constitutive of our self-conception that, without it, we would be different kinds of creatures, “a radically different kind of man.”
Our having an ever-expanding scientific image of ourselves is itself an extension of this aspect of our image of ourselves as reason-giving creatures, applying evaluative standards to the reasons we give. We can’t give up on either of the two images of us-in-the-world without destroying the other, which again demonstrates how the questions of what is and what matters are thoroughly enmeshed with each other.
But sometimes there is a clash between these two images of us-in-the-world, the scientific and the manifest, and then which is to prevail? This depends, must necessarily depend, on the particular case at hand, since both images are so intimately involved in our being the bearings-seeking, sense-making, reason-giving creatures that we are.
Resolving these tensions, with the goal of fusing them into a maximally coherent vision, cannot be accomplished through science. That is Sellars’s essential point. We cannot get reality to answer us back in regard to the issues that arise in reconciling the scientific and the manifest images of us. It’s in these clashes that the signal sent up doesn’t read, can’t possibly read, “Science desperately needed here.” but rather “Philosophy desperately needed here.”5
A whole class of such problems emerged in the seventeenth century, at precisely the time that both modern science and, not coincidentally, modern philosophy emerged. The new mathematical conception of matter forced a reckoning with our manifest intuition that “the external world” is exactly as it is presented to us in sensory experience. In fact, the very concept of “the external world,” as opposed to the internal world of our experiences, was of a piece with this philosophical reckoning, along with many other concepts and distinctions that became so accepted as to be considered part of the scientific image itself.6
And this new mathematical conception of matter also, for the first time, made consciousness—that internal world of our experiences—emerge as a philosophical problem so prominent that Arthur Schopenhauer dubbed it “the world-knot.” Nowadays we refer to it as “the hard problem of consciousness.” It is the quintessential problem of trying to reconcile the scientific and manifest images of us: What is the scientific description of our brains, whether in terms of its neurological hardware or computational software, that will be able to capture the internal world of conscious life awash with the qualitative details that constitute our most immediate sense of both the world and of ourselves?
And speaking of ourselves, does our most updated neuro-scientific image leave any room for such a thing as the self? There is of course that thing, the brain, consisting of a hundred billion neurons, connected by a hundred trillion synapses. But that brain hasn’t a clue as to what is going on in those trillions of neurons and synapses. The unifying diachronic perspective that we demand of the self, maintaining its identity over the course of a lifetime, seems excluded from the scientific image. Must we then rid ourselves of the notion of a unified self? Or is this commitment to a self so fundamental an aspect of the manifest image that excising it would render incoherent the entire idea of pursuing a human life? Whose life, after all, is one pursuing?
Does the neuro-scientific image of us likewise corrode the manifest sense we have that we are agents, deliberating among options and, for better or for worse, choosing? Does it leave any room for accountability, for not only our actions but also our beliefs? And if it doesn’t, well then doesn’t that in itself undermine the scientific image along with the manifest image? If there’s no accountability for our beliefs, no way of evaluating which are justified and, rationally, choosing to believe on this basis, then how can we even endorse the scientific image? Reason itself unravels at that point.
Such questions emerge from the tensions between the scientific and manifest image of us, and they demand that we try to reconcile these two images in such a way as to maximize our overall coherence. Science, with its nifty trick of enlisting reality as a collaborator, can’t help us out here, since there’s no way for reality to answer us back regarding how to reconcile these two images. These are prototypical philosophical problems, of just the kind Sellars identified, pressed upon us because of advances in the scientific image of us-in-the-world but not answerable by means of that image.
Sellars’s way of demonstrating the need for philosophy is particularly appealing to those among us who deem science the ontological arbiter. It satisfied me as a grad student. But I’ve come, over the years, to think of the class of philosophical problems that Sellars had identified as only a sub-class, not exhaustive of all the kinds of clashes that lay within philosophy’s domain. Philosophy isn’t confined to trying to reconcile the scientific and manifest images. There are tensions deriving from inconsistencies within the manifest image itself, some of them leading to our moral inconsistencies, which, precisely because they’re so self-serving, are particularly fugitive.
Moral philosophy has had a long history of chasing down such inconsistencies, which typically consist in our endorsing moral principles while simultaneously engaging in practices that violate them, most especially when those practices harm only those quite unlike ourselves, with whom we don’t identify sufficiently to release our empathetic response. (This suppression of empathy can also be explained by way of evolution.) From the sixteenth century’s Jean Bodin, a philosopher and jurist who formulated the first arguments against slavery,7 to the contemporary philosopher Peter Singer, whose “argument of the drowning child” spawned the effective altruism movement,8 philosophy’s techniques for detecting inconsistencies has nudged us in the direction of moral progress.
It is an aspect of our manifest image that our inconsistencies, once clearly seen, disturb us, and this is the aspect to which philosophy addresses itself. We may well hide from our contradictions when they serve our desires and interests. But if the arguments exposing these contradictions become sufficiently compelling—most especially if they gain traction with others in our community—the discomfort grows. Eventually a change in moral sensibilities emerges and will be viewed as “what all decent folks feel.” We look back on our slave-owning, wife-beating, witch-and-heretic–burning, gay-stoning ancestors and wonder how they could have lived with themselves. As with the philosophical conclusions that gradually become incorporated into the scientific image, these changes too obscure philosophy’s role in reason’s progress. And out of this obscurity arises the contemporary philosophy-jeerer’s charge that philosophy, unlike science, never makes any progress at all.
It was, of course, the Enlightenment that promoted reason as the only reliable means we have to pursue our distinctively human project of trying to get our bearings. The progress that the Enlightenment unleashed regarding the questions both of what is and what matters has carried us forward to this moment, when we can discourse knowledgably not only about the universal stochastic laws of quantum mechanics but also about universal human rights.
From its very beginning, the Enlightenment attracted vicious attacks—from religion, of course, whose authority over claims both of what is and what matters was being challenged, but also from various political thinkers on both the Right and the Left. These attacks continue into our own day.
A common claim against the Enlightenment has always been, and continues to be, that reason can provide no basis for morality. To anyone familiar with the long history of moral philosophy, this claim sounds as astoundingly uninformed as the assertion that science has provided us no basis for believing there are laws of nature. Unfortunately, the pro-Enlightenment philosophy-jeerer, with an impoverished grasp of the full resources of reason, is in no position to defend the Enlightenment against such absurdities. And when he or she climbs a soapbox as a celebrity scientist to demean philosophy, he or she weakens the very cause of reason the philosophy-jeerer seeks to defend.
We are, at this moment, facing newly invigorated forces of irrationality. Tribalism and authoritarianism are reasserting themselves across the globe. These, too, are means for trying to gain our bearings, which, being primitive, come to us far more naturally and forcefully than do scientific and philosophical reason. Tribalism and authoritarianism are where our species began, and, over the course of our long history, almost every variation of them has been tried. The outcomes, even when not disastrous, are never as conducive to human flourishing as the states of affairs to which reason has brought us. With so much to lose, we need to marshal the full resources of human reason.
The philosophy-jeerer’s denial of philosophy’s role, merely embarrassing in the recent past, now becomes something far more dangerous, allied with the most ominous recent developments threatening to reverse all the progress we have made. The scientists and the philosophers should be friends.