Thursday, July 14, 2011


Let's call a philosophical position crazy if it's strongly contrary to common sense and the overall state of scientific and other evidence doesn't decisively support it. So, for example, panpsychism -- the view that all objects have minds -- would appear to be crazy. So would solipsism, the view that I am the only being who exists in the universe. So would radical inductive skepticism, the view that we cannot be justified in believing that the sun will rise tomorrow or that grass will by and large remain green. Of course, if the ultimate weight of evidence decisively supported one of these philosophical positions, that position would no longer be crazy. Heliocentrism and special relativity might have been crazy when first conceived but scientific evidence soon rendered them non-crazy. I assume this is not the case for panpsychism, solipsism, or radical inductive skepticism.

Now, crazyism. Crazyism about a topic is the view that something crazy must be among the core truths about that topic. Crazyism can be justified when we have good reason to believe that one among several crazy views must be true but where the balance of evidence supports none of the candidates strongly over the others. Abstractly, we might find ourselves compelled to believe that either T1, T2, T3, T4, or T5 must be true, where each of the T's is crazy.

Perhaps crazyism is justified regarding interpretations of quantum mechanics. The many minds and many worlds views, for example, seem to me plainly contrary to common sense; and it also seems to me that the balance of evidence does not decisively favor them. Therefore, the views are "crazy" in the sense I have defined. If the same holds for all viable interpretations of quantum mechanics, then crazyism would appear to be justified regarding quantum mechanics.

I am inclined to think that crazyism is also a justifiable attitude to take toward the relationship between conscious experience and the physical world. All viable options are, when closely examined, strongly contrary to common sense, and none is decisively supported by the overall state of the evidence. On another occasion I hope to argue in defense of this. Right now, I am just sketching the possibility abstractly.


Matthew said...

I once had an argument with Sandy Goldberg over the semantics for 'crazy' verses 'outlandish' with regards to philosophical views. (Crazy views came out better since they were simply deviant within the community for norm violations, whereas outlandish views deployed foreign norms.) In any case, another candidate for crazyism on your view is any solution to the problem of material constitution. The last time I checked, every proposed solution was in someway deeply counter-intuitive.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to judge what is and isn't common sense, because common sense beliefs normally aren't visible; we only become aware of them when we come across something that appears to be counter to them and realise we think it is strange. (Common sense beliefs are usually about things we encounter often but don't have to think about very much.) But I can't see how the many worlds interpretation stands against common sense. Most of the objects of common sense beliefs are human scale - I don't think we have any about universes. People presented with the theory who don't know the physics being explained might express confusion or a sort of Aristotelian wonder, but I don't think they'd see a violation of common sense unless led on by philosophical questioning. (Often it is the need of philosophers to ask the questions they do, rather than their conclusions, that strikes outsiders as odd.) Maybe it is common sense beliefs about causation or the future that the interpretation seems to attack, but I don't think it really does. (Could you get funding for a nice survey or two, do you think?)

The many minds interpretation may be different, but the use of 'mind' is probably confusing matters, because the things called 'minds' in the theory aren't at first glance much like our own (someone could probably accept that they have just one mind that contains an infinity of these faculties that many-mind theorists call 'minds'). Probably there are common sense beliefs about the nature of physical observation that are put under strain by exposure to this theory, though, but 5 minutes spent with real physicists would do the same, and we don't describe their experimental protocol as 'crazy'.

All that said, the situation with consciousness seems to me to be very different, and crazyism is possible (there are common sense beliefs in the area to counter) and perhaps necessary. This may even be an area where philosophical questioning itself isn't even seen as unusual or against common sense - it's somehow acceptable to think about and be puzzled by consciousness (perhaps more so outside of scientific/philosophical circles, bizarrely). I'm very attracted to your position on this, I just wanted to use the reference to physics to point out that what's common sense isn't always easy to determine. (And that's before getting on to wondering whether physicists' or philosophers' common sense differs systematically from that of others, or whether there are systematic cultural, age-related, time-of-day-related, etc. effects.)

Jeremy Goodman said...

As a Crazyist about pretty much everything, I wonder: Is Crazyism crazy?

Ron said...

Although I don't agree about being a crazyist on consciousness, I love the taxonomic idea here, and think I'll use it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

@ Matthew: Crazyism might be true of much of metaphysics. It's worth considering on a case-by-case basis. But prima facie, although *some* philosophers seem to be naturally attracted to non-commonsensical views, many are not, so when most philosophers seem to feel forced to say strange things that don't agree with each other, crazyism is worth considering as a possibility.

@ Anon: It is somewhat difficult to evaluate common sense, and it's partly an empirical question. But my inclination is to think that if you described the many worlds view in plain language to ordinary folks, most would say that it seemed pretty unintuitive ("weird", "bizarre", "hard to believe"?).

@ Jeremy: I believe crazyism in any area is probably unintuitive (since the disjunction of crazy views is usually unintuitive). However, I think the balance of evidence can come to favor it, and so it may therefore not be crazy.

@ Ron: Thanks! That was part of my hope with this post.

Anonymous said...

This is the same anon. I suppose my point was that if crazyism includes the merely 'weird' and 'hard to believe' it isn't as interesting. There's a difference between things people can't believe are true and things people believe can't be true (though the former hopefully includes the latter). The latter are more interesting and crazy to propose, because they involve overcoming firmly held existing (if tacit and informal) theories, whereas things included in the former but not the latter tend to be things that are merely new or distant from everyday experience - still weird, but not necessarily crazy. E.g. no-one can really believe any claim about quantum stuff to be true, but most of us (non-experts) also don't believe of any that it can't be true. Probably almost all philosophical claims are hard to believe, but only the most interesting ones are widely believed to be absurd.

I think that only the things we believe can't be true are opposed to common sense (so asking what's common sense is still useful), but if you specifically ask someone whether a quantum claim is opposed to common sense they'll probably mistakenly say 'yes' because common sense doesn't say much either way, and it sounds a bit odd. (So taking a survey would skew our results; we really need a covert field study!)

In the case of consciousness, there are plenty of common sense beliefs around (especially among philosophers and scientists) to attack, so really interesting crazyism is possible (and good luck with it!).

Anonymous said...

Do you consider the theories of anticipatory systems crazy when they posit that non-living systems also operate with anticipatory strategies.

Also there's the Hoffman theory of conscious realism and the mind body problem - is that crazy

Are theories of adaptive mutation by your reckoning crazy?

Jobie Watson said...

I agree that common sense is based on empirical evidence as well as passed down stories and behaviors through a culture (family, friends, community, etc).

Since some cultural norms differ, would there be some rules to allow for what can and cannot be defined as crazy? Or is crazyism useful for big picture ideas like the nature of the universe and being?

@ Anon - I think a covert field study is a fantastic idea. Any covert must be inherently interesting, don't you think?

Richard Baron said...

If we are tempted by crazyism in response to a given question, that is, if all the answers we can think of look crazy (and perhaps we have reason to believe that any possible answer would also look crazy - though I'm not sure how one could make such a strong claim), isn't one possible response to say, "We're asking the wrong question"?

To apply this to the question "How should we interpret quantum mechanics?", we might conclude (and I am very tempted to conclude) that seeking to interpret it is the wrong pursuit - except that it has generated some very interesting and important philosophical spin-offs. Instead of seeking interpretations, we should perhaps concentrate on adapting our habits of thought so that the uninterpreted equations are straightforwardly meaningful to us, as if mathematics were our native language.

I think one could make similar suggestions for other areas where crazyism is tempting.

Anonymous said...

Should one spend time on crazy theories? For example, if one ranks by prior probabilities the theories one could pursue, wouldn't the crazy ones have the lowest priors, and thus one could rationally ignore them, or at least not spend finite resources to pursue them instead of ones with higher priors? Think of alternative medicine therapy hypotheses here vs. conventional therapy hypotheses and the finite resources to conduct experiments so see which work.
An article was written about this problem back in 1995 in the Mt Sinai J of Med by a philosopher.

Chairephon said...

Perhaps relevant: this classification of philosophical views.

Jay said...

Well said. I've been telling my students that crazyism is justified about infinity, but in different words.

Anonymous said...

You say that a topic is crazy (“crazyism”) if some of the core truths of that topic are crazy: strongly contrary to common sense and unsupported by scientific or other evidence. But do your examples support this? If the topics are consciousness and quantum mechanics, are the competing views on the topics, and their core truths, among the core truths of those topics (consciousness and quantum mechanics)? For example, maybe the core truths of consciousness are not crazy, even though, perhaps, all the views currently on the table are crazy, because their core truths are crazy. It depends, I guess, on the topic. If it’s “the relationship between conscious experience and the material world”, as you say it is, are there even any core truths about that topic? Maybe that it’s mysterious; but that’s not crazy. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Forget about the above comment. I made a mistake.

Anonymous said...

"panpsychism -- the view that all objects have minds -- would appear to be crazy."

Except for the fact that your definition of panpsychism is not the definition of pansychism as it's commonly used in philosophical discourse.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines panpsychism (see as "the doctrine that mind is a fundamental feature of the world which exists throughout the universe," but is careful to note that is only a first approximation--and that there is a wide range of disagreement about how best to understand these terms.

In other words, the view "all objects have minds" is more like a caricature of panpsychism than an accurate definition.

For what it's worth, I don't consider myself a panpsychist, but I'm willing to allow that there are some intelligent defenses of something like a generalized panpsychism in the philosophical literature. See for instance Galen Strawson's "Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?," and the bibliography of the Stanford Encyclopedia entry just cited.

Richard Marshall said...

It strikes me that the epistemic solution to vagueness would count as crazyism. In fact Roy Sorenson defines the meta-sorites problem as the incredulity people have when confronted with the existence proof for epistemic vagueness.

Anonymous said...

I would nominate personal identity and population ethics as areas in which crazyism is justified. It seems that there is no consistent position on either which does not require some unbelievable conclusion--and we can procure evidence that this is so by running arguments to establish that some commonsense facts about personal identity and population ethics are, in fact, jointly inconsistent, and hence, that true position on the subject can avoid (crazily) rejecting one of them.

Anonymous said...

--amend that last sentence to say "NO true position on the subject can avoid (crazily) rejecting one of them."

firezdog said...

What good is this? If someone is really crazy, he thinks everybody else is crazy. Only the sane can agree on whom to call insane (but if it is an empirical question what counts as common sense, then it will follow that as common sense varies, so does sanity).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

@ Anon Sat 12:28: Good points. It might be possible to define different strengths of crazyism, depending on how stringent the criteria are for a view's being "crazy".

@ Jeremybee: I think it might be wise for me to hold off for now on the question of whether those particular views as "crazy" or not! What do you think?

@ Jobie: I agree that there will be cultural variation in what counts as "crazy" -- in fact probably an immense amount of variation on big-picture metaphysical questions, I suspect. I think my sketch of the view can accommodate such relativism about craziness.

@ Richard Baron: That's an interesting suggestion.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Responses, cont.:

@ Anon 9:32: One might start by ignoring the crazy theories, but once all the non-crazy ones are ruled out, the remaining crazy ones might rise to non-trivial p's (*if* one assumes that one has a good enough view of what the alternative possibilities are).

@ Chairephon: I suspect "badass" and "crazy" will be substantially overlapping categories!

@ Jay: Yes, crazyism seems very likely to be true about the infinite. I might even tap that as an example in future presentations. Thanks!

@ Anon 11:55: It is possible that all views on the table are crazy but crazyism is not justified. That would be the case if it was reasonable to believe that something non-crazy was true but we just haven't figured it out yet. I'm not inclined to think this is the situation regarding the mind-body problem, though. Idealism is crazy on its face. Interactionist substance dualism has some crazy implications if you work it out; enough that I would call it crazy, too, all things considered. The various forms of non-interactionist substance dualism are also pretty much crazy on their face. Materialism and property dualism are, I think, like interactional substance dualism, pretty crazy when the implications are worked out (especially in implying that some very weird assemblages will have conscious experience) -- though I know this will take some arguing in our current philosophical climate. There are other alternatives too, but I don't think they are less bizarre.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Anon 12:40: I was deliberately defining panpsychism in a strong way as an example of a crazy view. There are some people who do hold that view. There are also, as you say, weaker views of panpsychism that may or may not be crazy in the intended sense. If I had defined panpsychism to include them, that would have blurred its value as an example.

@ Richard Marshall: Epistemicism about vagueness does seem crazy to me. But that's because I don't think the evidence compels it, whereas epistemicists about vagueness apparently do think the evidence compels epistemicism. That said, vagueness might be one of those areas in which all going approachs are highly counterintuitive when their consequences are sufficiently elucidated; so *if* there is no good basis to choose among them, crazyism might be the right attitude to take.

@ Anon 1:21: Thanks for the suggestions! I don't know much about population ethics, but personal identity would seem to me a reasonable candidate if I didn't like one of the counterintuitive resolutions to it so much better than the others!

@ Firezdog: I'm not sure I accept your premises. Or maybe crazyism is only justified among those of us with one foot in the asylum, so we can see how things look inside, but another foot in common sense.

Richard Marshall said...

My point about epistemic vagueness was that Sorenson makes a distinction between an existence proof and an explanatory proof. Sure he thinks the existence proof is there (so I guess he's not crazy!) but the result of the proof leads to him being commited to a whole set of beliefs that strike even him as unbelievable. That part is the crazyism I guess. (Tim Williamson doesn't have this issue because he doesn't care about an explanatory proof).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for clarifying that, Richard. If Sorenson thinks the unbelievability that results is sufficient to make the case for epistemicism about vagueness indecisive, regardless of the proof, then it sounds like he might be committed to something like crazyism. But if the unbelievability is mere psychological fact not undercutting the epistemic merits of epistemicism, then he merely holds (what he takes to be) a robustly counterintuitive position.

Arnold Trehub said...

If the logical implications of a crazy idea successfully predict novel events that couldn't be predicted on the basis of any other known idea, is it still a crazy idea?

Howard Simmons said...

Outside causal conversation, the description of any philosophical position as 'crazy', however outlandish it may seem, is unprofessional. It amounts to a kind of abuse of one's opponent and is certainly not conducive to discovering the truth.

Anonymous said...

Eric, would you consider Cartesian dualism to be a "crazy" position given what we know? Or is it, as with the example of pansychism, something that has different levels of weirdness? It strikes me that certain strands of philosophy of mind inch very close to a weak form of dualism, insofar that they think that there is an irreducibly hard "problem" of consciousness that can't be solved by appeals to materialism.

Another topic which comes to mind in respect to crazyism is "free will". What would count as crazy there? There haven been a lot of discussion on the subject in the nerdier parts of the blogosphere, here are some samples:

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

- Juan

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Arnold: Not if the evidence firmly points toward that conclusion.

@ Howard: I think there's a difference between three ways of doing it. First, calling A "crazy" when you hold a contrary position and haven't seriously, respectfully examined A; second, calling A "crazy" when you hold a contrary position and have seriously, respectfully examined A; and third, calling A "crazy" when you think it might actually be true. I see no problem with the third (which is the crazyist's position, since crazyism about a topic is the position that some crazy thing must be among the core truths about that topic), nor probably with the second.

@ Juan: Given what we know about evolution, fetal development, and the tight relationship between the brain and cognition, I do think that Cartesian interactionist dualism, though it has a certain intuitive appeal, quickly starts to present some choices among several highly counterintuitive possibilities. On free will, I suspect folk intuitions are contradictory and unstable, so it ought to be possible to massage things so that each of the going positions looks counterintuitive by folk standards (as experimental philosophers have started doing). Whether the evidence decisively supports one or another position on free will is less clear to me, and may turn partly upon whether crazyism is justified for the mind-body problem, which is related.

Howard Simmons said...


I agree about your third use -- here the use of the word is kind of ironic and not abusive. But I'm not sure about the second. Even if you've carefully examined it, you might still be totally wrong and you should have the humility to accept this. Of course 'crazy' is not as bad as some words you could use and may only be a a prelude to further substantive debate. But I still think it should be avoided in this kind of situation.

Marshall said...

I am inclined to think that crazyism is also a justifiable attitude to take toward the relationship between conscious experience and the physical world

Nicely put. The justification that suceeds when others fail. Certainly much of what I see in the world is counterintuitive to say the least, yet e pur si muove.

... congratulations on making the front page at ....

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Marshall (and Howard)! I'm working on a longer paper on this right now, though it might not be in circulatable shape for a while. Definitely third use of "crazy".