Thursday, October 12, 2017

Truth, Dare, and Wonder

According to Nomy Arpaly and Zach Barnett, some philosophers prefer Truth and others prefer Dare. I love the distinction. It helps us see an important dynamic in the field. But it's not exhaustive. I think there are also Wonder philosophers.

As I see the distinction, Truth philosophers sincerely aim to present the philosophical truth as they see it. They tend to prefer modest, moderate, and commonsensical positions. They tend to recognize the substantial truth in multiple different perspectives (at least once they've been around long enough to see the flaws in their youthful enthusiasms), and thus tend to prefer multidimensionality and nuance. Truth philosophers would rather be boring and right than interesting and wrong.

Dare philosophers reach instead for the bold and unusual. They want to explore the boundaries of what can be defended. They're happy for the sake of argument to champion unusual positions that they might not fully believe, if those positions are elegant, novel, fun, contrarian, or if they think the positions have more going for them than is generally recognized. Dare philosophers sometimes treat philosophy like a game in which the ideal achievement is the breathtakingly clever defense of a position that others would have thought to be patently absurd.

There's a familiar dynamic that arises from their interaction. The Dare philosopher ventures a bold thesis, cleverly defended. ("Possible worlds really exist!", "All matter is conscious!", "We're morally obliged to let humanity go extinct!") If the defense is clever enough, so that a substantial number of readers are tempted to think "Wait, could that really be true? What exactly is wrong with the argument?" then the Truth philosopher steps in. The Truth philosopher finds the holes and presuppositions in the argument, or at least tries to, and defends a more seemingly sensible view.

This Dare-and-Truth dynamic is central to the field and good for its development. Sometimes there's more truth in the Dare positions than one would have thought, and without the Dare philosophers out there pushing the limits, seeing what can be said in defense of the seemingly absurd, then as a field we wouldn't appreciate those positions as vividly as we might. Also, I think, there's something intrinsically valuable about exploring the boundaries of philosophical defensibility, even if the positions explored turn out to be flatly false. It's part of the magnificent glory of life on Earth that we have fiendishly clever panpsychists and modal realists in our midst.

Now consider Wonder.

Why study philosophy? I mean at a personal level. Personally, what do you find cool, interesting, or rewarding about philosophy? One answer is Truth: Through philosophy, you discover answers to some of the profoundest and most difficult questions that people can pose. Another answer is Dare: It's fun to match wits, push arguments, defend surprising theses, win the argumentative game (or at least play to a draw) despite starting from a seemingly indefensible position. Both of those motivations speak to me somewhat. But I think what really delights me more than anything else in philosophy is its capacity to upend what I think I know, its capacity to call into question what I previously took for granted, its capacity to cast me into doubt, confusion, and wonder.

Unlike the Dare philosopher, the Wonder philosopher is guided by a norm of sincerity and truth. It's not primarily about matching wits and finding clever arguments. Unlike the Truth philosopher, the Wonder philosopher has an affection for the strange and seemingly wrong -- and is willing to push wild theses to the extent they suspect that those theses, wonderfully, surprisingly, might be true.

But in the Dare-and-Truth dynamic of the field, the Wonder philosopher can struggle to find a place. Bold Dare articles and sensible Truth articles both have a natural home in the journals. But "whoa, I wonder if this weird thing might be true?" is a little harder to publish.

Probably no one is pure Truth, pure Dare, or pure Wonder. We're all a mix of the three, I suspect. Thus, one approach is to leave Wonder out of your research profile: Find the Truth, where you can, publish that, and leave Wonder for your classroom teaching and private reading. Defend the existence of moderate naturalistically-grounded moral truths in your published papers; read Zhuangzi on the side.

Still, there are a few publishing strategies for Wonder philosophers. Here are four:

(1.) Find a Dare-like position that you really do sincerely endorse on reflection, and defend that -- optionally with some explicit qualifications indicating that you are exploring it only as a possibility.

(2.) Explicitly argue that we should invest a small but non-trivial credence in some Dare-like position -- for example, because the Truth-type arguments against it aren't fully compelling.

(3.) Find a Truth-like view that generates Wonder if it's true. For example, defend some form of doubt about philosophical method or about the extent of our self-knowledge. Defend the position on sensible, widely acceptable grounds; and then sensibly argue that one possible consequence is that we don't know some of the things that we normally take for granted that we do know.

(4.) Write about historical philosophers with weird and wonderful views. This gives you a chance to explore the Wonderful without committing to it.

In retrospect, I think one unifying theme in my disparate work is that it fits under one of these four heads. Much of my recent metaphysics fits under (1) or (2) (e.g., here, here, here). My work on belief and introspection mostly fits under (3) (with some (1) in my bolder moments): We can't take for granted that we have the handsome beliefs (e.g., "the sexes are intellectually equal") that we think we do, or that we have the moral character or types of experience that we think we do. And my interest in Zhuangzi and some of the stranger corners of early introspective psychology fits under (4).


Anonymous said...

"But I think what really delights me more than anything else in philosophy is its capacity to upend what I think I know, its capacity to call into doubt what I previously took for granted, its capacity to cast me into doubt, confusion, and wonder."

This is a draw for me too. I've recently begun to think that one thing that makes philosophy valuable for students (and its professors) is that it encourages this kind of open-ended intellectual exploration, and as a result, intellectual humility. This is why Socratic dialogues still delight after two millenia: it's breath-taking and a little scary to walk to the precipice and see the groundlessness of your views.

And I'm glad you propose historical study as an outlet for this style. It explains the joy I get in doing Berkeley scholarship...

Amod said...

I like this classification. I'm not a big fan of the Dare approach, because I think something's wrong with a philosophy that isn't lived. The world's understanding has indeed been advanced by some Dare philosophers - but when I think of examples, I think of Nietzsche and Foucault, and it sure didn't seem to work out well for either of them. I am more sympathetic to the Wonder approach, which I think I've inhabited myself at times in the past. But I moved away from it when things fell apart. When everything around you is going wrong, it helps an awful lot to know what you believe, to have a firm rock that you can stand on.

But as far as the difficulty in getting Wonder published, that's why we have blogs.

Zach said...

Cool post! I like this way of looking at things. I'd even say that I identify with what you call Wonder to a large extent.

I can't speak for Nomy, but I guess I was thinking about the distinction somewhat differently. I have a friend who is inclined toward panpsychism. He knows it’s a fringe view, and he’s humble. In light of the view's (un)popularity, I suspect that his all-things-considered confidence in panpsychism is probably quite low. Still, when he thinks about the relevant issues directly (setting aside facts about the view's popularity), panpsychism really seems to him to be the best explanation of the data. (To put it in a form you'll sympathize with: Maybe all of the options seem to him somewhat crazy, but panpsychism seems the least so.)

As I was thinking about things, I would classify this friend as a Truth philosopher. In defending panpsychism, he's still accurately representing how things seem to him / where his thoughts take him. This, by itself, is already an important kind of sincerity.

You might respond by pointing out that, on this way of looking at things, most philosophers will turn out to be Truth philosophers. I don't know whether this is right, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were. If most philosophers are sincere in this sense, it makes the question of whether it's possible to practice philosophy sincerely + rationally in the face of disagreement all the more pressing.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Anon: I agree, the Wonder approach might be especially important in teaching.

Amod: I can see retreating to the solid ground of truth when things fall apart. Exploring the margins of Wonder is arguably a luxury. Or at least I suspect it is at an individual level, though at a societal level it might be crucial that we have people who encourage that. (And yes, blogs are a good venue for these weird Wonder shots.)

Zach: Right. I wasn't as explicit about it in the original post as I might have been, but I see it in terms of motivation rather than in terms of the final position. One might come to a strange-seeming position like panpsychism from a Truth motivation. But even then -- as you point out -- to the extent you have conciliationist leanings, it might be hard to fully sincerely believe it. And then to go to really go to bat for it you might need a touch of Dare or Wonder.

Nomy said...

Hi. This is great, but I must remark that 1. I'm a truth philosopher in the sense that I need high credence in my views, but it's very high on my list not to be boring. I would like to think that I choose to write about questions for which the answer is interesting. Why assume that the truth is always boring and/or commonsensical? In a similar vein, people with weird views aren't always Dare or Wonder philosophers. I'm told by people who knew David Lewis that he believed every word he said.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Nomy!

If you need Truth and non-Boring, then you've got a harder road to find publishable material than if you're happy with True but Boring and Exciting but maybe not True.

I do think that there are some true things that aren't boring at all, and which most people reject. And I think there are even more things that Truth philosophers falsely believe to be True and non-Boring. But as an armchair empirical observation about general trends, I'm inclined to stand by my view that Truth-motivated philosophers will tend to prefer weaker positions, positions closer to the existing philosophical consensus, and nuanced/compromising positions, compared to Dare-motivated philosophers.

Also, I'm not sure we always are right about what we believe -- and philosophers might tend to think they're more Truth-motivated than they really are. Does the Stoic who trembles on the battlefield really believe that death is not bad? Is the philosopher who vociferous asserts that, really, they favor Strange View X because they deeply believe it's true, really right about their motivations? (I'm not sure how this applies to the case of David Lewis in particular.)

Arnold said...

That we come more easily to comprehension through intension, not comprehension of ideas, but comprehension of oneself via self-observation in an infinite field of tension...

I wonder if Eric will post this...

Unknown said...

I wonder where an underminer/questioner/skeptic might fit in. Depending on the position, someone who's a bit more negative might be playing for any of the three sides. Poking questions at modal realism seems to fit what the truth does, poking questions at that murder is wrong the dare. I suppose on the whole it fits the model of wonder pretty well, but rather backs into positions rather than defending them more directly. I.e., do the opposite of (2.) by instead of suggesting a dare might be right, a truth might be wrong.

Seth_blog said...

I'm a non-philosopher, and thus not a competent judge.

Having said that based on your classification I think the 'dare' philosophers tend to be more conforming ( to basic philosophical assumptions) then truly daring. They seem to me to be playing at the edges but holding with established rules of the analytical game.

As for truly daring, I am thinking of someone like Crispin Sartwell. I believe Sartwell is earnestly guided by what he feels is true, he engages with the history of philosophy from many traditions, yet he is not bothered by breaking from common fundamental assumptions. He also shares your admiration of Zhaungzi. I think his recently published systemic work 'Entanglements: a system of philosophy' should be getting much more attention.

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Eric, I love your wonder philosopher, but I think maybe all three of these are ideal types that capture relatively little of the philosophy that typically gets done. I suggest that the largest category may be the Hair Splitter. Most academic philosophers are people who just love to make distinctions and who use these to argue for positions, not because they are remotely plausible, but because the argument can be made and, hopefully, published somewhere. They may think of themselves as daring, but in truth they are just tiresome. Somewhere Nietzsche makes fun of the kind of philosopher who is brave enough to rise up and smote a long dead thesis with yet another lethal argument.