Friday, April 21, 2017

Common Sense, Science Fiction, and Weird, Uncharitable History of Philosophy

Philosophers have three broad methods for settling disputes: appeal to "common sense" or culturally common presuppositions, appeal to scientific evidence, and appeal to theoretical virtues like simplicity, coherence, fruitfulness, and pragmatic value. Some of the most interesting disputes are disputes in which all three of these broad methods are problematic and seemingly indecisive.

One of my aims as a philosopher is to intervene on common sense. "Common sense" is inherently conservative. Common sense used to tell us that the Earth didn't move, that humans didn't descend from ape-like ancestors, that certain races were superior to others, that the world was created by a god or gods of one sort or another. Common sense is a product of biological and cultural evolution, plus the cognitive and social development of people in a limited range of environments. Common sense only has to get things right enough, for practical purposes, to help us manage the range of environments to which we are accustomed. Common sense is under no obligation to get it right about the early universe, the microstructure of matter, the history of the species, future technologies, or the consciousness of weird hypothetical systems we have never encountered.

The conservativism and limited vision of common sense leads us to dismiss as "crazy" some philosophical and scientific views that might in fact be true. I've argued that this is especially so regarding theories of consciousness, about which something crazy must be true. For example: literal group consciousness, panpsychism, and/or the failure of pain to supervene locally. Although I don't believe that existing arguments decisively favor any of those possibilities, I do think that we ought to restrain our impulse to dismiss such views out of hand. Fit with common sense is one important factor in evaluating philosophical claims, especially when direct scientific evidence and considerations of general theoretical virtue are indecisive, but it is only one factor. We ought to be ready to accept that in some philosophical domains, our commonsense intuitions cannot be entirely preserved.

Toward this end, I want to broaden our intuitive sense of the possible. The two best techniques I know are science fiction and cross-cultural philosophy.

The philosophical value of science fiction consists not only in the potential of science fictional speculations to describe possible futures that we might actually encounter. Historically, science fiction has not been a great predictor of the future. The primary philosophical value of science fiction might rather consist in its ability to flex our minds and disrupt commonsense conservatism. After reading far-out stories about weird utopias, uploading into simulated realities, bizarrely constructed intelligent aliens, body switching, Matrioshka Brains, and alternative universes, philosophical speculations about panpsychism and group consciousness no longer seem quite so intolerably weird. At least that's my (empirically falsifiable) conjecture.

Similarly, brain-flexing is an important part of the value of reading the history of philosophy -- especially work from traditions other than those with which you are already familiar. Here it's especially important not to be too "charitable" (i.e. assimilative). Relish the weirdness -- "weird" from your perspective! -- of radical Buddhist metaphysics, of medieval Chinese neo-Confucianism, of neo-Platonism in late antiquity, of 19th century Hegelianism and neo-Hegelianism.

If something that seems crazy must be true about the metaphysics of consciousness, or about the nature of objects and causes, or about the nature of moral value -- as extended philosophical discussions of these topics suggest probably is the case -- then to evaluate the possibilities without excess conservatism, we need to get used to bending our minds out of their usual ruts.

This is my new favorite excuse for reading Ted Chiang, cyberpunk, and Zhuangzi.

[image source]


Samuel Douglas said...

Totally agree on both sci-fi and cross-cultural philosophy (and literature from other cultures in general), but I'd suggest that there are ways to have more immediate experiences that could serve to 'broaden our intuitive sense of the possible'.

howard berman said...

As a counterweight to your provocative point: on his blog the sociological eye, Collins observes how science fiction, particularly Star Wars, particularly with regards to wars, reflects earlier realities of wars: in his piece on Star Wars, he notes how the dogfights echo WW I aerial combat and that today's gunbattles aren't carefully targeted affairs but sweeping torrents of bullets and how light sabre battles reflect one to one combat as in the Iliad
Perhaps your thesis wants qualification.
Plus a lot of science fiction is really badly written, a sign of sloppy thought (my observation)

howie berman said...

Plus, what happened to the avaunt guard? Experimental art and lifestyles. Why does everything have to be ideas? Doesn't the causality work the other way? Bottom up?

Neil said...

The rapprochement of Foucault and Schwitzgebel! Disrupting common sense was Focuault's project across much of his work. In the more interesting (to me) stuff, he used not cross-cultural work but historical work to this end: the claim was seeing that different 'ontologies' had been adopted in the past helped to show the arbitrariness of our own and therefore the possibility of "thinking otherwise". But before he went that route, he, too, appealed to literature. In his case, it was avant garde literature that was supposed to do the work.

I agree with him and you that literature can help to enlarge our imaginative capacities (though - for reasons I will come to - I suspect that this is not a particularly powerful method of doing so). But if you're going to get people to take your crazy view seriously, it's not enough that they can imagine it. In fact, you've done that for them. You need to give them reason to think that it might be true. Imaginability might be a guide to possibility, but (even if it is), we're concerned with what's the case in this world.

Anyway, I have a bigger quibble. Again, I think sci-fi can enlarge our imaginative capacities. But I doubt it can do so in a particularly powerful way. Imagination is heavily constrained by, rather than bursting through, common sense. I doubt that mirror misidentification syndrome, with its actual features, could have been imagined before we actually encountered. I suspect that if you had sketched a blindsight case, many philosophers would have simply denied that such a thing was conceivable. I think reality is stranger than we can imagine. Expanding our imaginative possibilities is best done through the systematic encounter with reality. Reading evolutionary biology, and the way in which phenotypic features came to develop across deep time, and through counterintuitive mechanisms, expands the imagination much more than reading Cixin Liu. Reading cross cultural anthropology and controlled experiments in social psychology gives us a much greater sense of what is possible than reading Ted Chiang.

I will continue to read sci fi! But I will read it for relaxation. I think it is basically pretty conservative of our folk psychology. If it weren't, I suspect it would not be aesthetically satisfying.