Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Question: Why Do Great Philosophers Embrace Such Wacky Views? Answer: The World Itself Is Wacky

Recently, philosopher Michael Huemer seems intent on irritating philosophers of every stripe. (This isn't necessarily a bad thing.) On Saturday, he took aim at philosophical heroes, arguing that "great philosophers are bad philosophers". He notes that great philosophers tend to confidently defend bizarre conclusions, which he suggests reveals their poor judgment; and often they rely, he says, on arguments so terrible that "even an undergrad" can see the fallacies and non sequiturs. As examples, he offers Socrates's bad arguments against Thrasymachus in Book I of the Republic, Hume's "absurdly skeptical" conclusions in the Treatise and Enquiries, and Kant's willingness to take his thinly defended "categorical imperative" to absurd conclusions, such as not telling a lie even to prevent a murder.

If you don't already know this material, I won't detain you with explanations here -- Huemer's are succinct and readable. I allow that on the face of it, Huemer has a pretty good case. And he's not targeting obscure philosophers or obscure passages. These are some of the most famous parts of some of the most famous works in the Western canon. And the views and arguments are decidedly... well, let's go with wacky. Nor is Huemer especially cherry picking. There's a lot of wacky-seeming stuff in other canonical philosophers too, for example, Leibniz on monads, Nietzsche on eternal recurrence, Descartes on animal (non-)minds, David Lewis on the real existence of possible worlds....

Huemer has an explanation. He suggests that what makes a philosopher "great" is that the philosopher advances intriguing ideas that future generations find worth arguing about. Ordinary, bland truths, convincingly defended, don't really heat up a conversation. When faced with a compelling argument for a reasonable conclusion, people might react with something like, "yeah, that sounds right," and just move on. If in contrast you say, "there is no self" or "you shouldn't even lie to a murderer chasing an innocent person" (and for whatever sociological reason people take you seriously), that can really start up a good debate! Maybe a debate that lasts centuries. Possibly, the only people willing to advance such claims are bad philosophers -- philosophers who lack the good judgment to recognize the absurdity of their conclusions and who lack the critical chops to recognize that their supporting arguments are rotten. Hence, great philosophers are bad philosophers. QED!

Is Huemer's argument a good one? Or is it, perhaps instead, a great one (in the strict Huemerian sense of "great")?

I am probably a good target audience for Huemer's argument: Regular readers will know that I am quite happy to attribute plain old bad argumentation to some of the great historical philosophers, including Kant and Laozi, in accordance with my rejection of excessive charity in reading history of philosophy. Although I like Hume and Plato and (some parts of) Kant, I'm not bothered by Huemer's suggestion and I rather enjoy the idea that the great philosophers are fallible boneheads just like the rest of us.

However, I have one observation about a piece of the story that Huemer's hypothesis leaves unexplained, and I have a competing explanation to offer instead.

Here's what Huemer leaves unexplained: The lack of "good" philosophers in the historical record.

If Huemer's hypothesis were correct, you'd think that among the contemporaries of Plato, Hume, and Kant would be good philosophers who defend sensible views on solid grounds. These philosophers might not get as much attention as the provocative philosophers, but it would be odd if historical records of them entirely disappeared. But there are no philosophers -- or at least (as I'll explain below) no ambitious metaphysicians -- who appear to meet Huemer's standard of being a "good" philosopher.

Huemer suggests that Aristotle might be somewhat better than the trio he highlights, even if not entirely good. On Facebook, some others suggested maybe Thomas Reid might be a good philosopher who was a contemporary of Hume and Kant. But I don't think Aristotle or Reid are probably good by Huemer's standards. Some of Aristotle's and Reid's views are quite strange, and their arguments for those strange views aren't reliably sensible. For example, Reid, despite his reputation as a "common sense" philosopher, argues that material objects have no causal power and can't even hold together into consistent shapes, without the constant intervention of immaterial souls (an opinion he acknowledges is contrary to the views of the "vulgar"). I have argued that there are some metaphysical issues -- particularly the issue of the relation between mind and body -- where not a single philosopher in the whole history of Earth has been able to articulate a fleshed-out positive theory that isn't both highly dubious and in some respects radically contrary both to our current common sense and to the common sense of their own historical era. (I am still willing to entertain possible counterexamples, if you have some to suggest.)

Why is this? Why are philosophical theories about the metaphysics of mind (and, I'd suggest, at least also personal identity, causation, and object individuation) all so bizarre and dubious? Here's my hypothesis: The world is bizarre and (for the foreseeable future) philosophically intractable. This is my competing explanation of the bizarre and dubious claims that Huemer has noted often occupy center stage in the history of philosophy.

The world is bizarre in the following sense: Some things that are true of it are radically contrary to common sense. In physics, consider quantum mechanics and relativity theory. And in philosophy, the bizarreness is epistemically intractable, for the foreseeable future, for the following pair of reasons: (1.) Our common sense about fundamental issues of metaphysics is probably inconsistent at root, and if so, no self-consistent well-developed metaphysics could possibly adhere to all of it. (This explains the inevitable bizarreness.) And (2.) In the domains under discussion, empirical methods are indecisive, and we need to rely on this flawed, inconsistent common sense to a substantial degree. This generates intractable debates where the violations of common sense of one theory become the commonsensical starting presuppositions of competitor theories, which then bring radical violations of common sense of their own. No theory decisively meets all reasonable criteria of excellence. (This explains the inevitable dubiety.)

Great philosophers are undaunted! Amid the competing bizarrenesses, they find some to favor. (The epistemic landscape isn't totally flat: There still are considerations pro and con and better and worse ideas.) They defend their favored views as best they can -- of course indecisively, given the bad epistemic situation of ambitious metaphysical philosophy.

How about arguments we now think of as "good" arguments for sensible conclusions? Either (a.) they are unambitious, rather than going after the really huge, intractable issues (especially in fundamental metaphysics), or (b.) they are flawed for reasons that remain mostly invisible to their proponents (i.e., probably you. Sorry!), or (3.) they are forms of skepticism about the enterprise.

This metaphilosophy is probably at its most plausible when applied to fundamental issues of metaphysics. The best examples of totally weird views and arguments tend to be in metaphysics. Maybe other subfields work differently? (I do think, however, that ethics might soon face a cognitive and methodological crisis, when confronted with a range of Artificial Intelligence cases for which it is conceptually unprepared.)

Great philosophers embrace bizarre views because our ordinary commonsense understanding of the world is so radically deficient that no non-bizarre view is defensible or even, once one tries to specify the details, coherently articulatable. Great philosophers confront this bizarreness, defending their best guess with the indecisive argumentative tools they have, pushing us forward into the weird unknown.

[image source]


  1. My way of putting it is that reality is absurd. Anyone who thinks that isn't true needs to read about the initial historical reactions to heliocentrism, natural selection, relativity, or as you mention, quantum mechanics.

    Therefore absurdity, in an of itself, is no argument against a proposition. You must have logical reasons to reject it (which might be a lack of evidence or of positive logical reasons to accept it, or even an application of parsimony), or better yet, evidence that contradicts it.

    That said, we also have to be cognizant that many wacky views come not from rigorous applications of logic, but from rationalizations to preserve cherished notions. I can preserve a belief in the Easter bunny if I invent a bizarre enough rationalization for it. The need for rigor goes in both directions.

  2. Loved your post. Could I have your permission to translate it into Spanish in my blog and link it back to you? Best regards.

  3. SelfAware: I agree, with one modification: seeming-absurdity is, I think, a strong consideration against a view, though it can’t be a decisive one given that there are no live possibilities (at least in fundamental metaphysics) that avoid it. A view that piles many absurdities together with insufficient motivation to do so is normally less philosophically choiceworthy than a view that minimizes the seeming-absurdities as best it can.

  4. Reality is not absurd; it is our own perception, a perception that is projected onto reality that is absurd. What is absurd about value being reality? The only thing that is absurd about value being an all inclusive objective reality is that subject/objects metaphysics (SOM) makes that ontology intellectually illegal. SOM asserts that value is a relation between a subject and an object therefore, SOM places the power of mind first in hierarchy, a position that gives mind the right to make absurd statements about what reality is or is not.

    If one can concede that value comes first in hierarchy, a distinction that makes value sovereign, then one has to acknowledge that as sovereign, value as value is everywhere the same. It then becomes glaringly obvious that mind and matter are expressions of value, and as expressions, both mind and matter are not two different, distinctly opposing dichotomies, but one unified whole; a unified whole consisting of value, and ontologically derived from value.


  5. Thanks for the comment, Lee! On reality vs perception being absurd, I don't really disagree. To say that reality is "absurd" is to say something about our reaction to it rather than something about how it is intrinsically, independent of us. On the SOM and value -- that's very compressed and hard to evaluate. You'll be unsurprised to hear that I am pretty skeptical about all positive theses of this sort, however!

  6. I suggest...'internet philosophy' could be piles of absurdities, or it can be become more and more a support towards reality as phenomena, like mind, body and self are phenomena and observation as noumena...

    The influence of the world, on the origins of western thought, more or less begin 2500 years ago...
    ...my example: at wikipedia, 'the philosophy of self Is the study of the many kinds of experiences of ones own identity. Self can be understood as a unified being connected to consciousness, awareness, and agency (the senses). The metaphysical nature of self can be understood as phenomenon, like the experience of oneself as a witness or observer.'

    My reality: I am 77 year old man in a noumenal universe...

  7. Would Albert Schweitzer meet the standards of a 'good' philosopher?

  8. As am aside from my Schweitzer question: if we are going to be making value judgements on individual philosophers, should we not also discuss what 'good' or 'bad' mean in this context?

    It occurs to me that we can't really speak to our values until we ask questions of modality in values. What purpose are our values meant to serve? Safety through continuity? Continuity through diversity or just straight up moral ecological management?

    As far as I'm concerned, if the standards for a philosopher to be considered 'good' are so high, then why would good have any meaning anywhere else?

    I think for me at least, infallibility is a ridiculous and absurd demand of any good philosopher just like it is a ridiculous expectation for a 'good' human.

    Personally I subscribe to a view more aligned with the temporal reality of our universe. I will be intelligent-ish some of the time just like I'll be good-ish sometimes. I'm only intelligent until I am stupid. In my experience, humans have this infuriating tendency to be inconsistent in most things. If you have lived with anyone else ever in your life, you see the smart, you see the stupid, you see the good and the bad.

    Hell, I only feel intelligent around some people but I feel like an imbecile in a group setting. Go figure?

  9. the track record of common sense is horrendous. This guy is bad news.

  10. Not sure if this helps, but: reality and truth are different, aren't they? Reality is how the world impinges on human life, projects and awareness; truth is representations that correspond to the way things are; absurdity happens when reality is contrary to the way we like things to be or think they should be.
    People like Freud and Rank and phenomenologists dealt with theses issues. Reality is in some way observer and participant dependent in that it cannot exist without people to encounter it, but it is independent of our will and our control, it is king reality as Portnoy was told by his shrink- it doesn't exist without the subject to encounter it, but it is cruel and there's not always anything to be done

  11. Very interesting and plausible conclusion! I think you are also right on the problem of being excessively charitable.
    Although I agreed partly with Huemer's earlier post in which he criticized history, I think this time he went too far. His attitude is plain arrogant. This happens sometimes in undergrad courses. Students may first think that there is a simple knock-down argument that falsifies a famous philosophical theory. The issues he mentions in relation to Hume - copy principle, problem of realism and unity - are by no means that simple. There is a vast amount of scholarship dedicated to these issue. Huemer's juvenile attack would not pass peer-review in any reputable journal.

  12. Others had responded to Huemer's original post by noting that the selection of Socrates' argument against Thrasymachus in Book I is particularly short-sighted and problematic (and highlights Huemer's utter lack of competence in the history of philosophy). The main reason is that the the interlocutors agree at the end of Book 1 and the beginning of Book 2 that Socrates' arguments thus far are not at all persuasive -- the point then, it seems, was not to present an argument that was ultimately satisfying. (It takes an actual scholar to then figure out why Plato presented it, despite this fact.) More generally, in his dialogues, Plato presents arguments that are modified or challenged depending on the dialectical context, and the relevant characters involved, sometimes leaving the discussion in a state of aporia (perhaps so as to encourage readers to think through the issues for themselves -- unfortunately Huemer did not take up the invitation to think carefully). It takes a qualified historian of philosophy to judge the role, value, and meaning of any given argument in a particular dialogue (such as a masterpiece like the Republic). It's unfortunate to see this lack of humility about one's understand of the relevant figures repeated here. [Note: I speak for Plato only because I'm personally invested in his philosophy, though I imagine similar defenses could be made of the other figures Huemer criticizes in undergraduate-style. Indeed, the mistakes he notes are not "problems that could be noticed by an undergraduate", but merely objections available only to one with an undergraduate-level-understanding of the subject matter. The great philosophers are those who, among other things, are not so narrow-minded and dense as Michael Huemer.]

  13. so my question is: how on Heumer's view is philosophy not different than religion and literature? Religion and literature are the happy hunting ground of unstable minds, or where to explore what such people are like.
    Religion and literature can be vehicles for wonder, as well as anchors for hard and deep trutha

  14. Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

    Unknown: I don't know much about Schweitzer's work. At least in one place, his treatment of the moral status of insects, however, is pretty unintuitive. I agree about the inappropriateness of such high standards.

    Howard: I'm pretty sure Huemer would say the same things about religion at least!

    Kaplan and Matias: Yes!

    Arnold: I'd suggest that you might only be 77 in the phenomenal rather than the noumenal universe.

    Anon Thu Feb 13: Yes, I am aware of this. I think it's an unfortunate feature of that particular choice. I venture that there are plenty of other places in Plato where we get arguments that wouldn't pass Huemerian muster, though -- for example the doctrine of recollection in the Meno. Would you disagree?

  15. But doesn't philosophy begin in wonder? It isn't all logic and truth tables, is it?
    Aren't there truths with a capital T, carved in stone emblazoned on a hill in Athens by a temple to Apollo? We aren't just truth machines are we? Even juke boxes play music. Isn't there room for music in human life and a little color?

  16. Or perhaps some wit can write a Platonic dialogue in which Heumer explains to all the great philosophers how egregiously awful and bad they are at philosophy?

  17. Plus, to my knowledge nobody in antiquity realized falling objects make a parabola- it is common sense now- to the educated. I think Heumer means 'obvious' and 'logical' when he talks about how he or any good contemporary philosopher would not make the same errors as Plato.
    Even plus versus minus in math and negative numbers and variables, were not obvious to everyone. Is modus ponens obvious. Should Aristotle have invented modern logic? Was that obvious? Put Heumer naked in a primeval forest, and by nightfall you'll visit his colonial house and he'll have you over for a three course meal, and take you for a spin in his electric car. So while we're at it: microwaves, cars, silverware, farms, books, all these things are obvious. Why shouldn't the conclusions of a 21st century philosopher be otherwise?
    I mean, really?

  18. The challenge of phenomenological and noumenological epoché, together...

  19. Responding to: "I venture that there are plenty of other places in Plato where we get arguments that wouldn't pass Huemerian muster, though -- for example the doctrine of recollection in the Meno. Would you disagree?"

    I would. Let's be careful not to conflate (1) bad argumentation, with (2) arriving at surprising views. Indeed, the theory of recollection is surprising, and even Socrates' interlocutors express surprise at this thesis (e.g., in the Meno and Phaedo). The extent to which such a theory is "bizarre" might require some comparison with recent "less bizarre" discussions of a priori knowledge, concept acquisition, and the like. Without invoking immortal souls and the like, we still have folks like Chomsky who are still rationalists in this sense. Shutting down Plato for the "spooky" elements in his theory (I hate this word, btw) is to cut off attention to the detailed and interesting dialectic that leads him there. Again, it takes a qualified scholar to remark on what the dialectic admits and what lessons can be drawn from it -- I don't see why we, as serious philosophers, should be compelled by undergraduate level arguments against its "spookiness" or its failure to attend to the findings of contemporary psychology. Normally, a good teacher of this material will encourage their student to make such an argument more precise, consider responses on behalf of Plato, consider relevant modifications that might be made to the theory of recollection, compare with existing theories that are similar elements, etc., and then we're doing serious philosophy. [Again, unlike anything Huemer seems to be capable of.] So, as a short answer to your question: I do indeed disagree -- cherry-picking views or arguments without any analysis whatsoever is completely misguided (again, *definitely* in the context of Plato, but I suspect for other systematic philosophers as well, such as Hume, Kant, Aristotle, and the like).

    Perhaps more simply: Who cares what passes Huemerian muster? My original objection was that he is not a competent reader of Plato. If we're to do serious metaphilosophy on the basis of historian, then we'll need real historians to do some of the work (and this is against his other ridiculous post titled "Against History").

  20. Sheesh, I think someone needs to read through Eric's posts about A Theory of Jerks...;)

  21. Dear Chris,

    Please accept my apologies, I think. The tone of this blog is civil, but sarcasm is a legitimate form of argument, isn't it?
    Heumer is very brash, so he should expect strongly worded brushback.
    My main point being that what is obvious to us is not obvious to the past.
    The name for it is Whiggish History, and I think it applies in many domains, but especially philosophy, given it's rhetorical and conceptual nature.
    It's very easy to say, how could Plato and Hume been so stupid?
    That's really a form of ad hominem
    But thank you and sorry

  22. [[re-posted from FB]]

    Before reading this, going just by the title, I thought to myself: are there any non-wacky metaphysical views to begin with? And when I read it, I felt satisfied. So I guess I agree with you, Eric.
    Put it this way: even the idea that macro-physical objects are ontologically real / substantial is metaphysically wacky. The idea that objects have parts is wacky, but so is the idea that objects do not have parts. If objects are just bundles of properties, that's wacky; but if objects are separate and have properties or attributes that sort of accidentally attach to them, that's wacky too. The idea that there are metaphysical relations (such as supervenience, dependence, grounding) that are not causal is already super strange to your average undergrad. It just gets weirder and weirder the more you think about it, in any direction.

    Curious what everyone thinks about this though. Some of it does sound a little counter-intuitive or pessimistic, especially after the optimism of the ordinary language philosophy approach.

  23. Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

    I agree that careful, charitable reading of Plato is worthwhile. But I do also think that one can go too far toward charity, and that experts in Philosopher X, who love that philosopher and have dedicated their careers to studying that philosopher, should not always receive others' deference when it comes to big-picture issues concerning Philosopher X's views. While dedicated experts have the huge advantage of detailed knowledge of the text and long consideration of the arguments, they can, I think, sometimes be too invested in viewing that philosopher in a positive light. An uncharitable, outside perspective can sometimes (only sometimes!) see the warts that deep devotion mask behind a complex web of justifications.

  24. The idea that you have sketched out in detail -- thinking about reality gets weird because reality is itself weird -- is something that has crossed my mind very often. But seeing that thought presented so well, with such philosophical detail, gives me great pleasure! (And you are absolutely correct -- the mind-body relation is the hardest of the hard nuts to crack.) I will be quoting you very often in conversations! I hope I can do that without having to make royalty payments!