Friday, August 04, 2023

Philosophical Progress by Opening Up New Epistemic Possibilities

Many philosophers have despaired of the existence of philosophical progress, or have thought that progress is sharply limited, because rarely do philosophical disputes come to a close with a clear winner. Debates can span centuries or millennia.

I was reminded of this by Alasdair MacIntyre's latest essay, where he writes:

It is not that there is no progress in philosophical inquiry so conceived. Arguments are further elaborated, concepts refined, and creative new ideas advanced by the genius of a Quine or a Kripke or a Lewis. But this makes it the more striking that there is never a decisive resolution of any central disputed issue.

MacIntyre's view is hardly unusual. I'd guess that the majority of professional philosophers regard philosophical progress as limited to (1.) very few of the big issues (e.g., the rejection of the immaterial souls of substance dualism?), (2.) some small or technical issues (e.g., the formalization of propositional logic), and (3.) as MacIntyre says, the elaboration of arguments, refinement of concepts, and introduction of creative new ideas (e.g., the "Mary's room" thought experiment). What seems to be mostly missing from philosophical history is, as MacIntyre says, the "decisive resolution" of the biggest issues.

Such thinking neglects, or at least inappropriately de-emphasizes, the most important form of progress in philosophy: opening up new ideas about what might possibly be true.

In a post a few years back, I distinguished "philosophy that opens" from "philosophy that closes". Imagine that you enter a philosophical topic thinking that there are three viable positions: A, B, and C. Philosophy that closes aims to reduce the three to one -- to show that A is true and that B and C must be rejected. Proving A would constitute philosophical progress, the decisive resolution of a philosophical dispute. As noted, this is rare for big philosophical issues.

Philosophy that opens, in contrast, aims to expand the list of viable positions. Maybe positions D and E hadn't previously been considered or had been considered but dismissed as non-viable. Philosophy that opens gives us reasons to take D and E seriously in addition to A, B, and C. We learn by adding as well as by subtracting. We learn that the epistemically viable possibilities are more numerous than previously supposed. When this happens at a cultural level, it constitutes an important type of philosophical progress (at least if the possibilities really do merit being taken seriously).

Viewed in this light, philosophy is continually progressing! Before the 20th century, maybe materialism (the view that people are wholly physical and don't have immaterial souls or properties) wasn't widely seen as viable. Now it is seen as viable. Furthermore, important materialist sub-positions, such as functionalism and biological naturalism about representation, which were at best wispy ideas before 1960 are now well-developed approaches. But things aren't settled! Panpsychism -- the view that everything, even solitary elementary particles, has a mind or consciousness -- has recently been developed as another viable philosophical view. Even if some religious traditions endorsed panpsychism long ago, it was not taken seriously as a viable alternative in mainstream Anglophone philosophical culture until recently and has been developed in a secular direction.

[Midjourney image of several diverse philosophers arguing, with stars and cosmos in background]

Other recent forms of progress leverage new technologies and scientific theories, enabling us to seriously envision new epistemic possibilities: for example, that we might live in a simulation, or be Boltzmann brains, or that the universe might be constantly splitting in accord with the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics, or that we might have extensive moral obligations to phenomenally conscious insects.

The space of epistemically live philosophical possibilities is of course culturally relative. One reason to read culturally remote history of philosophy is to enliven for us philosophical possibilities that we might not otherwise have taken seriously.

Over the centuries, the global philosophical tradition has accumulated quite a variety of bizarre-seeming views about fundamental questions of human importance. If the aim of philosophy is "decisive resolution" of such issues, this might seem the opposite of progress. Hence, perhaps the despair among those who wish we'd finally settle on the correct view of such matters (their own view).

On the contrary, we are philosophically ignorant. We are blinkered by evolved inclinations, culturally specific presuppositions, and myopic versions of common sense. Let's not hurry toward closure. What is more appropriate given our limitations, what we should strive for, and what constitutes the kind of progress we should want is a better map of the wide terrain of our ignorance -- appreciating possibilities beyond the narrow scope of what we ordinarily take for granted. At delivering a wide range of epistemic possibilities, philosophy has made excellent progress and continues to progress, perhaps increasingly swiftly in the past several decades, as the new kids discover and advance, or exhume and enliven from older traditions, ideas that seem weird to their elders.


Justin Weinberg said...

I really like this, Eric, and I think it’s important for philosophers (and others) to accept the opening up of new possibilities, often through the creation of new questions, as an intellectually valuable form of progress that philosophy is especially suited to making. I’ve made similar / complementary points a few times on DN, which you might be interested in, for example:

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Right! I love the creating questions post, and I strongly encourage any readers here in the comments section to check it out!

Peter Slezak said...

Thanks for your interesting discussion.

I agree with much that you have said, but I've offered a rather more pessimistic assessment in response to such optimistic and a-historical accounts as Stoljar's:

Peter Slezak, Is There Progress in Philosophy? The Case for Taking History Seriously
Philosophy , Volume 93 , Issue 4 , October 2018 , pp. 529 - 555

Jim Cross said...

I question how many of the new possibilities are simply repackaging of the old ones.

Isn't the simulation hypothesis simply a modern day updating of the ancient concept of Maya?

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

McIntire's observation is signal, I think. The undercurrent of it, seems to me, is the notion of cooperation v. competition. Arguments and discussions do not end decisively, as he notes. They end, eventually, and it is win, lose, or draw for combatants or groups of them. It is hard to settle upon what and how we know, when there were unresolvable differences going in. My brother takes this to a tragic end, saying that existentialty we are doomed because of the irresolvability between cooperation and competition. He and I have both been around a long time. One learns much when remaining responsively conscious. The more one sees, the more one knows if he is paying attention. Did I misspell McIntire? If so, my attention lapsed there. I won't worry too much over that.

Arnold said...

A probable progressive big issue real philosophical view would be...

Do thought experiments have to progress Suffering to begin to understand...

What/This is our place, being here now, in progression...

Philosopher Eric said...

I’m not in disagreement with this theme. I also agree that Justin’s post about rating philosophy on the basis of its production of quality questions, is an excellent one. But observe that here philosophy is merely being celebrated for what it already does. In a philosophy that opens, is there also room to theorize what it would take to develop a philosophy that closes? If so, and if a given plan doesn’t seem massively onerous, is there room in a philosophy that opens to advocate for the creation of communities with this opposing objective?

To this suggestion I’ve heard responses of “category error”, as if I’m asking for something like a determination of the color rather than shape of triangles. While it may be difficult to develop a community of respected professionals armed with various agreed upon principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology, I see nothing categorically mistaken about the notion.

Here’s the thing. The purpose of science is to close, and yet its function is practically based upon various still unresolved metaphysical, epistemological, and axiological dynamics which instead reside under the domain of philosophy. Therefore I believe that in order to help science improve (and mainly in its softest branches where progress has been most restricted), one or more communities should be developed to potentially provide scientists with better metaphysical, epistemological, and axiological principles from which to do their job. Any such success or failure should then tell us some things about underlying philosophical principles.

Would anyone here deny that philosophy should be open enough for certain philosophers to advocate the creation of an additional form of philosophy with the sole purpose of helping science advance in this way? Probably not. And beyond me, does anyone here see themselves as a potential advocate?

Anonymous said...

“Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be…” - Russell

Anonymous said...

I very much agree with this sentiment, and with its link to a distinction between philosophy that opens or closes. It also nicely captures the contrast between the two recorded variations of the old Hamlet line: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of"--in *your* philosophy, in the standard version, or in *our* philosophy, in the alternate. Does philosophy make progress? Does it do so by opening or closing? We first have to ask: *whose* philosophy? Whose progress?

This view nicely compliments Deleuze's that the purpose of philosophy is "to sadden," that it's "useful for harming stupidity"--with the qualification that the kind of stupidity at issue is the demand for narrowing and closing down epistemic possibilities. Particularly delightful is the fact than not only are the stupid philosophers of closure endlessly saddened by the inevitable reopening of epistemic possibility, it's their own fault, since most of the new epistemic options that philosophy makes live come from philosophers intending closure. Your own philosophy, Horatio, dreams more than you want it to.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Hmmmm...New epistemic possibilities. Well. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy, dealing with knowledge---how we know, what we know, and so on, if, and only if, I understand it, aright. Many years ago, I read the Dune books, by Herbert. In one of those, there was reference to the Benegeserit---a witching way, that was, bewitching.
Years later, I had a neighbor---loosely construed--- who tried to use 'the voice'on me. 'The voice' was a coldly impersonal tone, mechanical in texture and intimidatory in intent. I laughed at her impertinence. Whether she got my message hardly mattered.
She did not try that ploy on me again. Science fiction is useful. After all these years...hmmmm...

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

I also look for historiographic connections, among emergent probabilities and possibilities. Intimidation is the new art-of-passive-violence. Insult is high-drama,sans responsibility. Quasi-recent questions around non-violent forms of aggressive behaviors, are enough to make one want to regurgitate. Highway aggression, discounting gunplay, is egregious, even before injury or loss of life is taken to account. The *insurance companies* are laughing at us, all the way to the bank...they can't lose. This is the world we live in. And the enemy IS us. Bottom line says: cooperation is subsumed by competition. That is not my assessment. Thanks to my brother for pointing it out. And, to a good friend, whose experience in academia is broader than ours. We are all, either tightly or loosely construed, as autodidacts and polymaths. Works for me... Complexity stinks, in so many ways.