Thursday, October 07, 2021

Philosophy, Doubt, and Value

Imagine a planet on the far side of the galaxy, one we will never interact with, blocked by the galactic core so we will never see it. What do you hope for this planet? Do you hope that it’s a sterile rock, or do you hope that it hosts life?

I think most readers will join me in hoping that it hosts life. And not just bacterial life, but even better, plants and animals. Not just plants and animals, but even better, intelligent creatures capable of abstract thought and long-term social cooperation, capable of love and art and science and philosophy. That would be an amazing, wonderful, awesome planet!

Earth, for the same reasons, is an amazing, wonderful, and awesome planet. Among the most awesome things about Earth is this: There are moments when certain complex bags of mostly water can pause to contemplate profound and difficult questions about the fundamental nature of things, their position in the universe, the grounds of their values, the limits of their own knowledge. A world in which no one ever did this would be an impoverished world. The ability to ask these questions, to reflect on them in a serious way, is already a cause for pride and celebration, a reason to write and read books, and basis for an important academic discipline. This is so even if we can't find our way to the answers.

Philosophical doubt arises when we've hit and recognized the limits of our philosophical knowledge. Of course we have limits. To ask only questions we can answer is a failure of imagination.

But doubt need not be simple and unstructured. We can wonder constructively. We can consider possibilities, weighing them uncertainly against each other. We can speculate about what might be the case. We can learn something by doing so, about the structure of our ignorance and hopefully also about how things might be. We can try to shed some of our narrowness, our provincialism, and our inherited presuppositions. In exploring our philosophical doubts, we recognize and expand the cognitive horizon of our species.

Exploring the biggest philosophical questions, even when -- no, especially when -- one can’t know the answers, ranks among the most intrinsically valuable human activities.

[image adapted from here]


Howard B said...

This question might be related: if life is everywhere is it more valuable or less valuable?
If something bad happens to any individual, we feel assured that our family and country and all humans go on. Do we feel likewise that if life on earth is destroyed, then at least there is life halfway across the galaxy?

Michael Antony said...

Love this. A little something I'd add is that only in rare cases do we know what our limits are in finding answers to questions that interest us (which obviously isn't to say we don't have such limits). It *seeming* that we could never know something should usually be given little weight, in my view, since that's a to-be-expected artifact of our current ignorance, independently of what's in fact possible for us to know. So that leaves room, in my view, for rational hope that we might make progress even on matters that currently seem impossible for us to know anything about, which makes it all even more fun/valuable! I wrote a bit about that here, if you're interested.

Andrew P. Mills said...

This is a nice expansion of the defense Russell made of philosophy and its unanswerable questions in The Problems of Philosophy: "Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions… but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation"

George Gantz said...

... and there are things we now know that we CANNOT know. Hard to except for some. But also liberating us from the metaphysical trap of determinism (or "determined-ism"). My opinion is that these limitations are a "feature, not a bug" or the world we live in, as they enable the things that are most interesting. Like life.

"The price for autonoetic consciousness is a limitation in our knowledge. Self-reference implies incompleteness; Entanglement guarantees that the whole cannot be determined from the sum of the parts; Agency and free will mean we can never precisely predict the future from the past. But perhaps these limitations are also a gift. If we knew, or could know, all things, and if the future were simply a deterministic output of past and present states, then human life might seem more like a prison than a joyful adventure. "

Michael Antony said...

@George Gantz
There's no doubt we can and do know about some of our epistemic limits (the number of which may for all we know be enormous), but the cases in which we have demonstrations and a deep understanding of such limits are rare, certainly relative to how often people claim "we could never know about x, y, or z." An interesting book on the topic from a few decades ago is by the physicist and mathematician John Barrow, "Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits."

chinaphil said...

I'm not very convinced by this kind of argument, because it seems to be quite mixed up.

I'll use the Russell quote from Andrew Mills above, but I think the same criticisms apply to Eric's version.

"Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions" < This part seems to say, it's not studied for the sake of a goal.
"...but rather for the sake of the questions themselves" < This part seems to say something about the process having intrinsic value.

But then there's an about-face, and he lists several goals that philosophy achieves:

"...enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation"

It feels like Russell is (a) trying to having his cake and eat it (saying that philosophy is good in itself *and* because it brings positive results); and (b) making the fairly easily-understood concept of *training* into something much more complex than it need be.

The apparent push away from goal-oriented reasons for philosophy is probably motivated by the problem that "philosophers never seem to answer questions"; so Russell claims that the answers are not the point, the process is. But he never really explains how the process itself is beneficial. Instead he gives a list of side-benefits that are results of philosophy, without being the answers to philosophical questions. That is, he's still asserting that philosophy should be studied because of the results that it brings; it's just that those results aren't, as one might have expected, the answers to the questions addressed.

When you get benefits that aren't simply the answers to the problems you're addressing, that's not mysterious at all; it's well known as training. The maths student doesn't do question sets *in order that the answers may be known*; she does them to bring the side benefit of improved maths proficiency. The athlete doesn't lift weights *in order that great weights might be lifted*; she does it to boost her strength for the game of basketball or rock climbing or whatever. This is a very familiar paradigm, and if philosophers want to claim certain intellectual benefits, they should do it with clarity. Obviously, they run into the problem that those intellectual benefits are very hard to measure, so it's quite a tough sell if you break it open explicitly.

The intrinsic good argument may be equally difficult to sell. The personal/spiritual benefits of philosophy to the individual don't obviously constitute a reason to get philosophy funded in the public academy. And the claim of intrinsic benefit is often contested: it's easy to people who will tell you that thinking about aliens on the other side of the galaxy is a waste of time, and with your head in the clouds like that, you're making life worse by increasing your chances of ending up in a ditch.

Now I personally think that (a) philosophy does arrive at definite answers; and (b) philosophy is good training; and (c) that philosophy is intrinsically valuable, both for the individual and for humanity. But each of these requires some pretty tough arguments, and I fear that sometimes, philosophers have muddled them for rhetorical effect.

Philosopher Eric said...

Though I also consider our planet and any similar to be way cool, it seems to me that it might be far better for sentient life here in general to not exist. It could be that feeling bad outweighs feeling good as a whole given how horrible horribleness can potentially feel, though relatively mild goodness can potentially feel (or at least as I personally have noticed). If so then even if existence happens to be wonderful for us, it should ultimately be quite tragic for sentient life in general.

Then secondly, for me much of the awesomeness of our planet and others like it seems to be because modern science has helped me understand quite a bit about how things work. I suppose that many get a kick out of supernatural explanations though it’s worldly causal dynamics that make things fun for me. If I knew nothing about the causal mechanisms associated with physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology, economics, and so on, then I don’t think I’d be nearly as enthralled with this planet. Thus I guess it makes sense that I’m not nearly as fascinated by presuming that I’m curious about questions that are unknowable. I like to think that humanity can and will figure out a great deal. So cheers Michael Antony — your paper is appreciated by me!

Notice that if there were a group of people who devoted their lives to the exploration of certain questions, but never came to any agreed upon solutions for those questions, then it should be expected that others would criticize their efforts as a waste of time. Given this attack we should also expect defense, as in the one presented by Bertrand Russell or this post itself. Let me add my voice to this defense by suggesting that these critics mind their own damn business! Either say something constructive on the matter or buzz off. It’s not like humanity will ever stop exploring questions that it considers interesting.

Furthermore it seems to me that without various generally accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, or axiology, that it should be difficult for our softest varieties of science to progress. I propose four such principles to potentially better found science and so permit the advancement of our mental and behavioral varieties in general. But I’m not suggesting that modern philosophers as a whole should come to accept such principles. I’m suggesting that a smaller band should reach agreement and then become progressively more influential given the apparent effectiveness of their ideas.

Arnold said...

Can we remember 'one can’t know, when exploring philosophical questions'...
...the nature of exploration-evolution is nature not knowing in nature...

The nature of our evolution is the nature of not knowing...
...not knowing is the nature of nature not knowing...

History, as in the beginning of old testament, this way...
...nature is everywhere the same-we are nature...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone, and apologies for the slow reply!

Howard B: Speaking for myself, I'd hope there would be some life somewhere if Earthlings die out rather than no life anywhere. And of course I want Earth to continue after I die. Samuel Scheffler's book on the Afterlife is good on that latter issue.

Michael: Yes, I'd agree with that! I'll check out your paper too. :-)

Andrew: I agree with Russell on that point, though there are other things in that chapter I disagree with him about, including what ChinaPhil points out.

George/Michael: Right, that seems likely too. On the Michael/George issue, I'm inclined to think that (a.) of course there must be some bounds to our knowledge, (b.) in a few cases we can probably logically prove certain bounds to our knowledge, (c.) we don't know now how far those bounds might extend in the future.

Chinaphil: I agree with that critique of Russell in that chapter, and the cognitive/moral enhancements that are sometimes said to follow from philosophy are often oversold (and rarely studied, though see my work on the moral behavior ethics professors). I don't think that in this post I have muddled the intrinsic value question with the training or definite answers question. I hope I haven't, at least, since I really meant to be making only the intrinsic value point. But maybe the lines between these three things aren't completely clear, since asking questions rigorously starts to require outlining the problem space or possibility space, which starts to answer certain limited sorts of questions, and you could construe familiarity and comfort with questions in that area as a certain sort of training.

Phil E: I agree with most of what you say here except for the first part that the feeling bad outweighs the good for most of sentient life. There are at least two separate questions about that. First, is there overall more bad feeling than good feeling? Maybe, but it's hard to know. Second, even granting that there is more bad feeling, does that give life overall a negative value? I don't think we need to accept that kind of utilitarian perspective.

Philosopher Eric said...

I thought you’d like that professor. And indeed, I’m not saying that I think feeling bad outweighs feeling good for sentient life in general. I’m saying that this is certainly possible, and that from my own anecdotal suspicion (which is that the worst torturing that I could possibly be subjected to might feel a thousand times more intense than the best I could ever feel), the deck might often be stacked the wrong way! I certainly agree that it’s very difficult for scientists to effectively quantify this matter today. But once again I’m optimistic that progress can and will be made.

Above I said that I think many challenged sciences will need various accepted philosophical principles in order to significantly progress. Furthermore on your recent post about the heart revolting at evil I mentioned that I wasn’t satisfied with what’s been done with utilitarianism. (Essentially I’m a fan of amoral welfare rather than our various socially constructed moral notions.) So I’m tentatively going with a “psychological egoism” platform. But how might mental and behavioral scientists consider the subjective component to our nature with a reasonable degree of objectivity, given that they aren’t yet provided with any valid axiological principles from which to work? Perhaps my own would help.

It states that in a world that otherwise lacks any phenomenal value, or subjective goodness and badness, it’s possible for a machine which does not itself experience its existence (and this is presumably the case for all brains), to create a value dynamic by which something else does experience its existence (and presumably you and I are brain based phenomenal entities that are not brain, somewhat like light is not lightbulb). With this, or perhaps some other experimentally effective axiological principle from which to work, it seems to me that fields such as psychology might be explored with enough objectivity for stronger general models of our nature to finally take hold.

Consider a science which seeks to build effective models of something for which existence can be good/bad, that for whatever the reason does not yet reduce that good to bad dynamic back to an absolute term or idea. Wouldn’t this be like a physics which had no terms or conception of what’s currently referred to as the four fundamental forces by which things operate? I’m implying that the social tool of morality does not yet permit scientists to model the human from a reasonably objective position. Furthermore my principle of axiology (if experimentally validated and accepted) might give scientists enough cover to finally deal with subjectivity in an objective way. And if value does exist by means of certain objective physics (such as a kind of electromagnetic field sometimes produced by the brain for example), then science will need to run with this conclusion wherever it might lead, and even if it has various repugnant implications that we’d rather not be the case.