In defense of philosophy

post by casebash · 2015-12-22T01:53:37.945Z · score: 4 (11 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 14 comments
LukeProg considers philosophy a diseased discipline. Firstly, he points out that continental and postmodern philosophy generally fail at being clear or rigourous. The problem with this objection, is that all groups have subgroups that are kind of crazy. Even the Rationalsphere has the reactionaries. That said, I would disagree with the notion that all continental philosophy lacks value. Some of Nietzsche's and Schopenhauer's ideas are very interesting. There is a lot of unnecessarily complicated continental philosophy with very little substance, so I would agree with mainly focusing on analytical philosophy, but I haven't really read enough continental philosophy to comment on the proportion of interesting content to pointless dribble. I also agree that philosophy spends too much time looking back into the past; while some basic knowledge of the history of philosophy is important and history of philosophy of subjects should be available for those who are interested in it, philosophy should focus on the most convincing material for the most interesting and contentious questions.

That said, there is still a lot of value in the study of philosophy. A good first year philosophy course will provide students with an introduction to utilitarianism (through the trolley problem), libertarianism, the free-will debate, materialism vs dualism, Hume's Is-Ought distinction, Hume's critique of induction, Descartes radical skepticism (which is valuable until he tries to use the ontological argument), Occam's razor, Karl Popper's criterion of falsifiability, Rawl's original position, the Ship of Theseus, the Socratic method, stoicism (valuable in moderation) and Epicurius (his egoistic theory of philosophy is quite bad, but some of his thoughts on how to live a happy life are quite interesting). There will also be discussion of moral relativism, including critiques which should hopefully help some students see why complete, normative moral relativism is very philosophically unsatisfying. Contrarily to LukeProg, knowledge of the Gettier Problem improves one's epistemology because it shows that knowledge equals justified true belief is not a viable stance.

Unlike Less Wrong, the philosophers who run philosophy courses have to be able to argue that their courses are non-ideological, so it is necessary for them to include material that they may perceive to flawed, but which was important either historically or in the contemporary debate. I think that there are benefits of having discussion of arguments that seem (and actually are) ludicrous, such as Berkeley's Immaterialism as it trains students to consider ridiculous sounding ideas and argue against them with logic instead of dismissing them out of hand. Philosophy also trains other skills, such as learning to state arguments precisely and questioning why we believe what we believe. Having to write down your views, whilst knowing that your reasoning will be critiqued

Many beginning philosophy students are not very good at focusing on a question and will often try to dodge hypotheticals. For example, when it comes to the trolley problem, they will bring up pragmatic concerns (such as will the fat man actually stop the trolley?) instead of engaging with the core question being asked. Skilled professors or tutors are really effective at moving student's back to the core problem and I assume that after a while a reasonable percentage learn to stop focusing on periphery matters.

I believe that studying philosophy can greatly enhance student's rationality. It doesn't cause all students to converge on a single, correct belief system, but I think this is expecting a bit too much. Reading Less Wrong doesn't accomplish this either, but I would suspect that the readers of Less Wrong would tend to be a much narrower group than those who take a philosophy course in college. The readers of Less Wrong tend to already possess a reasonable amount of rationality, so even though a philosophy course may not make someone rational by our standards, it may still have significantly improved their thinking.

I will admit that I took a third year metaphysics course after reading Less Wrong and I gained very little from it because the answers to most of the questions seemed very obvious after reading The Map is Not the Territory. I also did a philosophy of language course. Again, most of the problems discussed seemed kind of obvious, but I think I learned quite a bit from the examples discussed, the framing and simply from being asked to consider some of the questions.

14 comments

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comment by Anders_H · 2015-12-23T06:24:36.201Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Contrarily to LukeProg, knowledge of the Gettier Problem improves one's epistemology because it shows that knowledge equals justified true belief is not a viable stance.

Consider two agents who are communicating with each other in an attempt to reach Aumann Agreement. These agents will certainly need precise words for the following concepts:

Reality: "Is statement A true?"

Belief: "Does agent M believe that statement A is true?" and "With what probability does Agent M believe that statement A is true?"

Map/Territory correspondence: "Does Agent M's belief that Statement A is true correspond to reality?"

Calibration: "Are Agent M's beliefs well calibrated?"

Epistemic process: "What method did agent M use to generate his posterior beliefs?" "Is that method reliable?"

Gettier problems show that you won't be able to project these five dimensions onto a single binary. Which is true but not very insightful. Moreover, I can't imagine that the ability to reach Aumann agreement will ever depend on the definition of "knowledge". Therefore, this is mostly an empty semantics discussion.

comment by casebash · 2015-12-25T10:49:10.657Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's not very insightful if you already know that knowledge isn't a primitive construct, but justified true belief held sway for an incredibly long time and most people don't realise that there isn't a straightforward definition for knowledge until exposed to the Gettier problem.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-12-25T13:07:24.706Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

How did that realisation change the way you interact with knowledge? As you claim your epistemology is improved, what kind of mistakes did you do in the past that you don't do anymore?

justified true belief held sway for an incredibly long time

What does that mean? Philosophers proclaimed for a long time that knowledge is about justified true belief? I think over my life I have been exposed to many different ways of dealing with knowledge and I don't think one of them was knowledge is primarily justified true belief.

comment by casebash · 2015-12-26T11:11:59.867Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Justified true belief held sway over philosophers, but it is also what most people would come up if you asked them and they thought about it for enough. People understand that knowledge is about having particular beliefs, that these beliefs have to be true and that people have beliefs that are true, but which they don't actually know to be true (justified element). I bought this definition until I was exposed to the Gettier problem.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-12-26T12:01:20.242Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

but it is also what most people would come up if you asked them and they thought about it for enough

There an easy way to check whether that might be true. Look at the producers of dictionaries. Webster:
information, understanding, or skill that you get from experience or education
awareness of something : the state of being aware of something

Maybe the guys at that dictionary are an expection. Let's look at the Cambridge dictionary:
understanding of or ​information about a ​subject that you get by ​experience or ​study, either ​known by one ​person or by ​people ​generally:
the ​state of ​knowing about or being ​familiar with something

Studying philosophy mislead you. Neither of those definitions speaks about justification or truth.

comment by casebash · 2015-12-27T00:16:46.191Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

They aren't really defining it just using synonyms.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-12-27T00:27:55.772Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think saying that knowledge is information that's due to experience of education is giving a synonym.

But even if someone defines a term via synonym they are still defining the term. It's worthwhile to note that different people interact with language differently.

At the moment where you accept the framing of the question as the only way to look at the issue, you miss a lot of real world usage of the concept in question by people who don't use the same framing as you do.

comment by pianoforte611 · 2015-12-24T03:28:17.106Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

LukeProg considers philosophy a diseased discipline

Four years ago! Probably a good idea mention that or check if he still thinks this.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-25T17:28:05.090Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Did he ever retract his youthful indiscretions?

comment by pianoforte611 · 2015-12-26T00:17:30.261Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Not that I know of. Probably not. Still, I wouldn't hold someone to something they said on a blog years ago.

comment by Dagon · 2015-12-22T14:54:58.794Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't thing there's a conflict between your post saying that there's a lot of value in up to a few hundred hours of scholarship and thought on a topic and LukeProg saying the leading edge of the topic is broken and it's not worth devoting significant portions of a career on current academic practices.

Both are likely quite true.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-12-23T04:30:51.038Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The one and only philosophy class I've taken was an Ethics course. My instructor was excellent at helping us engage with the core of hypotheticals. While it annoyed me at the time, I appreciate the girl who bit the bullet for moral relativism; she was my first exposure to committing fully to an ethical system.

I suppose I agree with you, that philosophy isn't useless, but the Sequences and the dialogues with other rationalists have been pretty effective, too.

comment by Marlon · 2016-01-04T13:30:13.819Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

To paraphrase Wittgenstein, what you should do if someone talks metaphysics is point out that they haven't given signification to some of their words. Although he says that philosophy should only care about reality (and if it's reality, it's physics, biology, etc and not philosophy), he also says that philosophy is here to clarify our thoughts, and I can't help but agree.

The "kind of crazy" of the postmodern though aren't the minority, they kinda all lack rigor and fail to give signification to their words (but use them nonetheless) - and moreover have what we'll call the "disease of the metaphor", doing many unnecessary or even obscuring metaphors.

I also agree that there is value in studying philosophy - but having the rationality to question it should come first. (Kinda obvious that I do side with the so called anti-philosophy huh)

comment by [deleted] · 2015-12-24T17:52:39.854Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There was an episode of the podcast 'the infinite monkey cage' which was more or less science versus philosophy. The guest scientists spoke at length and in detail what science had accomplished. The guest philosophers... sputtered for the whole show. But at the end the host said this...

In all of philosophy there is a small subset named logic. In all of logic there is a small subset named mathematics. In all of mathematics there is a small subset named statistics. If science would like to proceed without statistics, which is a shard of a shard of a shard of philosophy, then science is welcome to do so.