On philosophical progress

A big question in the philosophy of philosophy is whether philosophers make progress over time. One relevant piece of evidence that gets brought up in these discussions is the lack of consensus on age old questions like free will, normative ethics, and the mind body problem. If a discipline is progressing steadily towards truth with time, the argument goes, then we should expect that questions that have been discussed for thousands of years should be more or less settled by now. After all, that is what we see in the hard sciences; there are no lingering disputes over the validity of vitalism or the realm of applicability of Newtonian mechanics.

There are a few immediate responses to this line of argument. It might be that the age old questions of philosophy are simply harder than the questions that get addressed by physicists or biologists. “Harder” doesn’t mean “requires more advanced mathematics to grapple with” here, but something more like “it’s unclear what even would count as a conclusive argument for one position or another, and therefore much less clear how to go about building consensus.” Try to imagine what sort of argument would convince you of the nonexistence of libertarian free will with the same sort of finality as a demonstration of time dilation convinces you of the inadequacy of nonrelativistic mechanics.

A possible rejoinder at this point would be to take after the logical positivists and deny the meaningfulness or at least truth-aptness of the big questions of philosophy as a whole. This may go too far; it may well be that a query is meaningful but, due to certain epistemic limitations of ours, forever beyond our ability to decide. (We know for sure that such queries can exist, due to Gödelian discoveries in mathematics. For instance, we know of the existence of a series of numbers that are perfectly well defined, but for which no algorithm can exist to enumerate all of them. The later numbers in this sequence will forever be a mystery to us, and not for lack of meaningfulness.)

I think that the roughly correct position to take is that science is largely about examining empirical facts-of-the-matter, whereas philosophy is largely about analyzing and refining our conceptual framework. While we have a fairly clear set of standards for how to update theories about the empirical world, we are not in possession of such a set of standards for evaluating different conceptual frameworks. The question of “what really are the laws governing the behavior of stuff out there” has much clearer truth conditions than a question like “what is the best way to think about the concepts of right and wrong”; i.e. It’s clearer what counts as a good answer and what counts as a bad answer.

When we’re trying to refine our concepts, we are taking into account our pre-theoretical intuitions (e.g. any good theory of the concept of justice must have something to do with our basic intuitive conception of justice). But we’re not just satisfied to describe the concept solely as the messy inconsistent bundle of intuitions that constitute our starting position on it. We also aim to describe the concept simply, by developing a “theory of justice” that relies on a small set of axioms and from which (the hope is) the rest of our conclusions about justice follow. We want our elaboration of the concept to be consistent, in that we shouldn’t simultaneously affirm that A is an instance of the concept and that A is not an instance of the concept. Often we also want our theory to be precise, even when the concept itself has vague boundaries.

Maybe there are other standards besides these, intuitiveness, simplicity, consistency, and precision. And the application of these standards is very rarely made explicit. But one thing that’s certain is that different philosophers have different mixes of these values. One philosopher might value simplicity more or less than another, and it’s not clear that one of them is doing something wrong by having different standards. Put another way, I’m not convinced that there is one unique right set of standards for conceptual refinement.

We may want to be subjectivists to some degree about philosophy, and say that there are a range of rationally permissible standards for conceptual refinement, none better than any other. This would have the result that on some philosophical questions, multiple distinct answers may be acceptable but some crazy enough answers are not. Maybe compatibilism and nihilism are acceptable stances on free will but libertarianism is not. Maybe dualism and physicalism are okay but not epiphenomenalism. And so on.

This view allows for a certain type of philosophical progress, namely the gradual ruling out of some philosophical positions as TOO weird. It also allows for formation of consensus, through the discovery of philosophical positions that are the best according to all or most of the admissible sets of standards. I think that one example of this would be the relatively recent rise of Bayesian epistemology in philosophy of science, and in particular the Bayesian view of scientific evidence as being quantified by the Bayes factor. In brief, what does it mean to say that an observation O gives evidence for a hypothesis H? The Bayesian not only has an answer to this, but to the more detailed question of to what degree O gives evidence for H. The quantity is cr(O | H) / cr(O), where cr(.) is a credence function encoding somebody’s beliefs before observing O. If this quantity is equal to 1, then O is no evidence for H. If it is greater than 1, then O is evidence for H. And if it’s less than 1, then O is evidence against H.

Not everything in Bayesian epistemology is perfectly uncontroversial, but I would argue that on this particular issue – the issue of how to best formalize the notion of scientific evidence – the Bayesian definition survives all its challenges unscathed. What are some other philosophical questions on which you think there has been definite progress?