Thursday, August 20, 2020

Philosophy That Closes vs. Philosophy That Opens

Topic X, you might think, admits three viable philosophical positions, A, B, and C.  Since this is philosophy, though, probably you're wrong!  You could be wrong in two different ways: A, B, and C might not all be viable.  Alternatively, some position other than A, B, and C might be viable.  Either way, the claim "The viable options are A, B, and C" is false.

Philosophy that closes aims to avoid the first type of error.  It torpedoes bad positions to better converge on the one correct view of Topic X.  Philosophy that opens aims to avoid the second type of error.  It enlivens previously neglected or underappreciated positions, expanding rather than contracting our sense of the possibilities.

Both types of philosophy are valuable, but philosophy that opens can seem dialectically weaker.  "This is true and that is false!" rings in the mind, in books, and in journal articles much better than "Hey, consider this neglected possibility that might be true."

What do I mean by "viable"?  Something like this: A philosophical position is viable if a typical good reasoner in our philosophical community, informed of the relevant arguments, ought to conclude that it might well be correct.  A remote chance of correctness isn't enough (maybe there's a remote chance that I'm a brain in a vat).  But a viable position needn't be the likeliest one: Several positions might be viable, some more plausible than others.

The viable is of course vague-boundaried and disputable.  The disputability of viability is, in fact, central to how philosophy works.  Philosophers constantly negotiate the boundaries of the viable by aiming to open up or close off various possibilities.

Consider the metaphysics of consciousness.  Most 21st century Anglophone philosophers regard physicalism as a viable option: Consciousness is ultimately a matter of how we are physically configured.  Within physicalism, most or many would probably regard both functionalism (which focuses on abstract organizational structure) and biological accounts (which focus on the specific makeup of the organism and maybe its evolutionary history) as viable.  Maybe you have a preferred position; but you can see how a reasonable interlocutor might arrive at a different conclusion.

But is substance dualism viable -- the idea that we have immaterial souls, irreducible to anything purely physical?  Some philosophers (a distinct minority) favor substance dualism.  Of course, those philosophers find it viable.  Others might disfavor substance dualism while regarding it as still a viable possibility.  Still others think we're warranted in dismissing it entirely.

What about idealism -- the idea that only minds exist, and everything that we think of as material is in fact somehow a configuration of our (and/or God's) minds?  Or panpsychism, the view that consciousness is ubiquitous in the universe, even in simple entities like electrons?  Or consciousness eliminativism, the view that there really are no conscious experiences of any sort at all?

It's easy to read people as closers.  Arguing in favor of Position A seems to implicitly signal that you regard Positions B and C as demonstrably wrong, unless you wave your arms around canceling that implicature.  Even then, readers will often forget your caveats and interpret you as convinced that only A could be true.

I do think that people arguing in defense of commonly accepted positions are often aiming to close off other options.  Dialectically, this makes sense.  There's not much need for the community to hear that Popular Position A is viable.  More interesting and informative would be to learn that Popular Position A is in fact the one correct view that we ought finally to settle on.

However, philosophers arguing for unpopular positions might set their sights lower: not to convince others that substance dualism, or panpsychism, or idealism (or group consciousness, or that we have ethical obligations to plants, or that non-existence is better than existence) is in fact the one correct position that we ought to settle on, but only that the position is viable, possessing important but neglected philosophical virtues (and its competitors perhaps possessing troubling vices), and that we ought to treat it as a live option.  You can argue for this even if you think the underappreciated option is probably not true.  This is the philosophy of opening.

It is rather rare for philosophers to argue that a possibility is viable and ought not be dismissed while explicitly acknowledging that they regard other possibilities as more likely.  But why is it rare?  Why shouldn't we expect that we are are at least as likely to make philosophical errors of omission and close-mindedness as to make philosophical errors of over-inclusion and excessive open-mindedness?  Why shouldn't we focus at least as much on exploring the philosophical possibilities we could be wrongly neglecting as we focus on narrowing down to the one correct view?

What do you love about philosophy?  Some people love the feeling that they have arrived at the one correct view on a topic of profound importance.  Others love the beauty of grand systems.  Still others love the clever back-and-forth of philosophical combat.  But what I love most about philosophy is none of these.  I love philosophy best when it opens my mind – when it reveals ways the world could be, possible approaches to life, lenses through which I might see and value the world, which I might not otherwise have considered.

For me, the greatest philosophical thrill is realizing that something I’d long taken for granted might not be true, that some “obvious” apparent truth is in fact doubtable – not just abstractly and hypothetically doubtable, but really, seriously, in-my-gut doubtable.  The ground shifts beneath me.  Where I’d thought there would be floor, there is instead open space I hadn’t previously seen.  My mind spins in new, unfamiliar directions.  I wonder, and wondrousness seems to coat the world itself.  The world expands, bigger with possibility, more complex, more unfathomable, and weird.

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Related: 

Disjunctive Metaphysics (May 27, 2011)

The Crazyist Metaphysics of Mind (Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 2014)

The Philosophical Overton Window (Jan 20, 2018)

[image source]

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

A great example of philosophy that opens is Bill Lycan's 2009 paper "Giving Dualism its Due", published in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy. It was cool to see someone who had spent a long career defending physicalism come out of left field and publish a paper arguing that dualism gets short shrift. Another example philosophy that opens is Robert Nozick's Philosophical Explorations.

Here's a cool idea for a philosophy journal: The Journal of Forlorn Ideas. It only accepts papers that seek to expand the space of ideas and positions on a particular subject matter. Now, whether anyone might submit papers for publication there is up for debate—I suspect that prestige and status in professional status attaches much more to philosophers who close (jobs are for closers!) than to philosophers who open. That would be itself an interesting topic for discussion. Even more generally, one might speculate about the extent to which the institutions that reward professional research (e.g., universities, colleges) are biased against researchers that open, as opposed to researchers that close.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes! I also think David Chalmers is good example of someone who thinks through and offers up for our consideration positions that probably deserve only minority credence. I love the idea for that journal, but I do fear that you're right about the sociology!

Arnold said...

At 77 its easy to love-I love to read your posts...

But could have included paragraphs toward self and here now for philosophy...

Luke Roelofs said...

Thanks for posting this, it echoes things I’ve often thought. I feel like almost all of my work has been in the ‘philosophy that opens’ vein, which can make it hard to concisely convey the point to people. Especially since I often find myself exploring fairly small corners of logical space - ‘everyone assumes you can’t think both X and Y at once… but actually you can, as long as you also think Z!’

Ironically, I sort of suspect that this sort of opening-up is the task for which philosophical training best equips people - much better than it equips us to finally decide on the big truth! So it’s unfortunate if the profession rewards closing more than opening…

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Luke -- I'm glad you enjoyed the post! I've been slowly working through Combining Minds (too slowly, but it's so rich and I have so many other commitments and things), and it seems to me to manifest the "opening" approach beautifully.

Maybe one other dialectical challenge for philosophy that opens is that one tends to end up with complicated disjunctive views that are difficult to summarize.

Brian Weatherson said...

I'm not sure about the sociological claims here. I think that the very biggest rewards are often given to philosophers who are regarded as having opened up new space.

How many people regard Williamson as having closed off all alternatives to the picture in Knowledge and Its Limits? Maybe a handful of folks at Oxford, but probably not many outside it. But it's really admired because it shows us how a certain kind of position is possible. The same is true of Epistemic Injustice, of Lewis's defence of Humean supervenience, of Fine's development of grounding, and so on.

What's mostly true is that it plays better to look like you are a closer (though as you note Chalmers is an exception here, and Lewis sort of is to). But the real rewards come from successfully opening.

Indeed, I don't even think this is particularly controversial. It's a commonplace to say that purely negative work is not rewarded. Jobs aren't for closers - it's really hard to get a job by just developing flaws in existing views. What gets rewarded, correctly I think, is showing how new things (either new questions or new answers) are possible.

Hasen Khudairi said...

Arguably, a good philosophy paper proffers and defends the viability of a novel approach, thus being philosophy that opens, but also shows the limits of competing approaches, thus being philosophy that closes, as well.

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david said...


Your view is laudable. Unfortunately, most people in this world do not like to have their long-held assumptions upended. Socrates spent much of his time questioning the assumptions of others and was ultimately put to death. Although he was likely also put to death for other reasons, this certainly didn't help.

Arnold said...

An attempt to 'summarize complicated disjunctive views that are difficult to summarize'....

Plato's and "Hegel’s method for arguing against the earlier, less sophisticated definitions or views and for the more sophisticated ones "later"."..."Hegel's Dialectics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)"

...'Later' is closing for the less sophisticated views for philosophy...
...'Here Now' is opening for the more sophisticated views for metaphysics and philosophy...

Charles said...

This is a great post. It helps me understand my own motivations a little better - I think most of my work is oriented toward the opening ideal. I'm curious what you would say about cases in which you open up a new topic, and outline the options for theorizing about it. In one sense, that is a philosophical project oriented toward opening. In another sense, it is prior to either opening or closing.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks! Just a couple of replies:

Brian: You might be right -- sociologically the most successful strategy might tend to be opening things up while arguing like a closer. The social and personal level might differ here: At a personal level, it might *feel* like closing rather than opening.

Hasen: It's certainly possible (though ambitious!) to do both.

Charles: I'd be inclined to think of that as opening -- since your audience might not be aware of the range of options and/or have implicit commitments that you are now bringing into doubt.

Stephen Wysong said...

Eric, something you no doubt take for granted that not only might not be true but is not true is your certainty that time passes. Physics says it doesn’t. As a science fiction author deeply familiar with the genre, I’m sure you’re comfortable using the word ‘spacetime’, which is a geometric description of the universe that “... fuses the three dimensions of space and the one dimension of time into a single four-dimensional manifold.” (Wikipedia) The temporal dimension differs from the three spatial dimensions in that 3-dimensional spatial ‘snapshot’ manifolds, each comprised of all the events in the universe, are arrayed along the temporal dimension. (An ‘event’ in relativity physics is the "instantaneous physical situation or occurrence associated with a point in spacetime" - Wikipedia again). Mass provably deforms spacetime, producing gravity and slowing clocks.

So, what is the extent of the temporal dimension? Relativity physics says it's endless, so spacetime contains everything we consider past and future “all at once.” Nothing moves, nothing changes, nothing ‘happens.’ Here are the direct implications of spacetime that Philosophy seems reluctant or unable to consider ... and I’ll phrase them using the personal pronoun ‘you’—just to make it personal:

Your life was instantiated in its entirety and ‘you’ are but the experiencer, experiencing your stream, or flow, of consciousness. Your life has never happened, not even once. Because you are a spacetime fixture, essentially a recording in spacetime, every conscious moment persists, meaning that you repeatedly and eternally experience (or unknowingly re-experience) your life—the same is true for all conscious organisms everywhere and everywhen. Einstein referred to that as the “eternity of life” and identified consciousness as responsible—“... the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity ...”.

The flow of consciousness animates static spacetime, giving rise to our familiar dynamic view of the world. (By the way, I feel certain that "flowing time" is an externalization of the flow of consciousness—there is no "time as experienced." And the mysterious Arrow of Time is simply the narrative direction of consciousness).

This scientifically supported spacetime reality falsifies every belief system I know of Eric. Although this understanding of spacetime is well over a century old, Philosophy has been completely silent about what our spacetime reality tells us about the human condition, other than endless debates about the existence of free will. What do you suppose accounts for Philosophy’s most unusual silence? When will the philosophical mind decide to spin in this not very new, yet very unfamiliar direction?

If you'd rather not be the first Philosopher to formally explore this territory, you might consider approaching the subject as science fiction. The invention of a repeatedly reliable Time Viewer that fetched data from a few microseconds in the future would experimentally confirm the block universe for the first time and force all of the above considerations to be investigated. How would individuals and human cultures and institutions respond?

Just for grins, I'll close with an unrelated sci-fi story idea: The Man Who Couldn’t Pass the Turing Test.

The consequences of spacetime? Here's a primer:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1rZDWdTPEIvQyBI-q5ECAdQDgfpjwdA_N/view?usp=sharing

Arnold said...

Splintered Mind, May 27, 2011, Disjunctive Metaphysics...

August 2020, today the disjunctive state here is metaphysics/body, philosophy/thought, psychology/attitude...

...towards me its about self observation...thanks

Kevin Schutte said...

Hi Eric,

I'd just like to share a perspective on the presence or absence of a lot of "philosophy that opens". I think one thing that kept me out of the philosophy university as a profession was a requirement of openness. Whereas my preferred literary existence is such that I prefer to read only things that will point my understanding closer to truth about the world, in academia it seems that familiarity with and citations of (representative samples of) ALL the literature in a specialization was a substantial requirement for academia and publication.

"Kevin, you can't just read the compatibilist literature, you have to read and cite (a representative sample of) even the most nonsensical things people have ever written about free will." Grasping this sort of openness requirement reduced the number of topic areas I was willing to specialize in very substantially, pretty much to zero. I'm willing to read what Wittgenstein calls nonsense, but I'm not willing to read most other kinds of nonsense that make it past the publishing gatekeepers.

So, while you might be finding "philosophy that closes" to be more prominent in the literature, I think it's likely that you can find more "philosophy that opens" in the professors themselves. The philosophy classroom is notorious for opening intellectual windows that other disciplines are compelled to shut out. Taking relativism or nihilism seriously, for example, doesn't happen in accounting or engineering or much of anywhere else. I hope the same is true of the philosophy colloquium.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting perspective, Kevin! I can see how that would be a frustrating aspect of the discipline. As is so often the case, there are tradeoffs and costs in accepting different ideals, and surely it's possible to be too open.