Thursday, November 04, 2010

Not By Argument Alone (by Guest Blogger G. Randolph Mayes)

I just gave a talk at Gonzaga University called “Not by Argument Alone” in which I tried to show how explanatory reasoning figures into the resolution of philosophical problems. It begins with the observation that we sometimes have equally good reasons for believing contradictory claims. This is the defining characteristic of philosophical antinomies, but it is a common feature of everyday reasoning as well.

For example, Frank told me to meet him at his office at 3 PM if I wanted a ride home. But I’ve been waiting for 15 minutes now and still no Frank. This problem can be represented as a contradiction of practical significance: Frank both will and will not be giving me a ride home. One of these claims must go. The problem is that I have very good reasons for believing both. Frank is a very reliable friend, as is my memory for promises made. On the other hand, my ability to observe the time of day and the absence of Frank at that time and location is quite reliable as well.

So how do I decide which claim to toss? I consider the possibility that Frank is not coming, but this immediately raises the following question: Why not? (He forgot; he lied, he was mugged; I am late?) I consider the possibility that Frank will still show. This immediately raises another question: Why isn’t he here? ( He was delayed; I am early; he is here but I don’t see him?) Both of these questions are requests for explanations and producing good answers to them is essential to the rational resolution of the contradiction. Put differently, I should deny the claim whose associated explanation questions I am best capable of answering.

This is one way of explicating the view that rational belief revision depends on considerations of ‘explanatory coherence.’ The idea is typically traced to Wilfrid Sellars, and it has since been developed along epistemological, psychological, and computational lines. Oddly, however, it has not been explored much as a model for the resolution of philosophical questions. I don’t know why, but I speculate that it is because philosophers don’t naturally represent philosophical thinking in explanatory terms. Typically, a philosophical ‘theory’ is represented not so much as a proposed explanation of some interesting fact as it is a proposed analysis of some problematic concept.

In my view, though, philosophers engage in the creation of explanatory hypotheses all the time. Consider the traditional problem of perception. Just about everyone agrees that we perceive objects. But whereas the physicalist argues that we perceive independently existing physical objects, the phenomenalist is equally persuasive that the objects of perception are mind-dependent. Again, one claim must go. Suppose we deny the phenomenalist’s claim. But then how do we explain illusions and hallucinations, which are phenomenologically indistinguishable from physical objects? Suppose we deny the physicalist’s claim. But then how do we explain the origin of experience itself?

When we explicitly acknowledge that explanation is a necessary step in philosophical inquiry, we thereby acknowledge the responsibility to identify criteria for evaluating the explanations that we propose. Too often philosophical theories are defended simply on the basis of their intuitive appeal. But why would we expect this to reflect anything more than our intuitive preference for believing the claims that they preserve? In science, the ability of a theory to explain things we already know is a paltry achievement. A good explanation must successfully predict novel phenomena or unify familiar phenomena not previously known to be related. Are philosophical explanations subject to the same criteria? If so, then let’s explicitly apply them. If not, well, then I think we’ve got some explaining to do.

This is my last post! Thanks very much for reading and thanks especially to Eric for giving me this opportunity to float some of my thoughts on The Splintered Mind.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Randy, for a terrific series of posts!

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Thank Eric, I hope I can come back someday!