Friday, February 02, 2024

Swallows and Moles in Philosophy

In his review (in the journal Science -- cool!) of my recently released book, The Weirdness of the World, Edouard Machery writes:

There are two kinds of philosophers: swallows and moles. Swallows love to soar and to entertain philosophical hypotheses at best loosely connected with empirical knowledge. Plato and Gottfried Leibniz are paradigmatic swallows. Moles, on the contrary, rummage through mundane facts about our world and aim at better understanding it. Aristotle, William James, and Hans Reichenbach are paradigmatic moles. Eric Schwitzgebel is unabashedly a swallow.

Machery admits to having a mole's-eye view of the swallows. He praises the book, but he is frustrated by my admittedly wild speculations about radical skepticism, group consciousness, an infinite future, etc.

Machery's goal in his own recent book Philosophy Within Its Proper Bounds was, he says, "to curtail the flights of fancy with which contemporary philosophers are enamored". The Weirdness of the World celebrates such flights of fancy -- so naturally, Machery and I are going to disagree about the value of wild philosophical speculation.

Reading Machery's contrast of swallows and moles, I was immediately reminded of how the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi opens his Inner Chapters:

There is a fish in the Northern Oblivion named Kun, and this Kun is quite huge, spanning who knows how many thousands of miles. He transforms into a bird named Peng, and this Peng has quite a back on him, stretching who knows how many thousands of miles. When he rouses himself and soars into the air, his wings are like clouds draped across the heavens. The oceans start to churn, and this bird begins his journey toward the Southern Oblivion....

The quail laughs at him, saying, "Where does he think he's going? I leap into the air with all my might, but before I get farther than a few yards I drop to the ground. My twittering and fluttering between the branches is the utmost form of flying! So where does he think he's going? (Ziporyn trans., p. 3-4).

Zhuangzi is the swallowiest of swallows, soaring far beyond mundane empirical facts, wondering if life might be a dream, speculating about trees who measure eight thousand years as a single autumn, and celebrating "spirit men" with skin like ice and snow who eat only wind and dew, riding upon the air and clouds.

Zhuangzi's quail, however, raises a good point: It's much clearer where you're going if you confine yourself to small hops between familiar branches. The Peng is neither practical nor grounded, and Zhuangzi's philosophy is arguably the same. Zhuangzi's friend Huizi scolds him: "Your words are... big and useless, which is why they are rejected by everyone who hears them" (Ziporyn trans., p. 8).

In defense against Machery and the quail critique, I offer three thoughts:

First, if anyone is going to speculate about wild possibilities concerning the fundamental nature of things, philosophers should be among them.

It would be a sad, gray world if our reasoning was always confined to "proper bounds" and we couldn't reflect on issues like dream skepticism, group consciousness, and infinitude. Shouldn't it be part of the job description of philosophy to explore such ideas, considering what can or should be made of them?

Such speculations needn't be entirely unconstrained by empirical facts, even if empirical science fails to deliver decisive answers. In The Weirdness of the World my speculations always start from empirical observation. My discussion of dream skepticism engages with the science of dreams; my discussion of group consciousness engages with the science of consciousness; my chapter on the possible infinite future -- collaborative with physicist and philosopher of physics Jacob Barandes -- is grounded in the standard working assumptions of mainstream physics. Scientifically informed philosophers are as well-positioned as anyone to speculate about wild hypotheticals that naturally intrigue us (at least some of us). To stand athwart such speculations, saying "Thou shalt not enter this epistemic wilderness!" is to reject an intrinsically valuable form of human philosophical curiosity.

Second, we can distinguish two types of swallow: those confident that their wild hypotheses are correct and those who merely entertain and explore such hypotheses.

Maybe Plato was convinced of the reality of Forms and the recollection theory of memory. Maybe Leibniz was convinced that the world was composed of monads in pre-established harmony. But Zhuangzi was a self-undermining skeptic who appears to have taken none of his wild speculations as established fact.

I don't argue that the United States definitely has conscious experiences; I argue that if we accept standard materialist approaches to consciousness, they seem to imply that it does and that therefore we should take the idea seriously as a possibility. I don't argue that this is a dream or a short-term simulation; I argue that our ordinary culturally-given understanding of the world and mainstream scientific assumptions combine to justify assigning a non-trivial (maybe about 0.1%) credence to both of those possibilities. Barandes and I don't argue that there definitely is an infinite future in which future counterparts of you enact almost every possible action, but only that it follows from "certain not wholly implausible assumptions".

When soaring in speculation far beyond the mundane local tree branches, doubt is appropriate. The most natural critique of swallows is that they appear to believe wild things on thin evidence. That critique is harder to sustain when the swallow explicitly treats the speculations as speculations only, rather than as established facts.

Third, the swallow and the mole can collaborate -- even in the work of a single philosopher. As Jonathan Birch comments in my Facebook post linking to Machery's book review, two of Edouard's paradigmatic examples of moles -- Aristotle and William James -- are probably not best thought of as pure moles, but rather as swallow-moles. They dug around quite a bit in mundane empirical facts, yes. But they sometimes also soared with the swallows. Aristotle speculated on the existence of a supraphysical unmoved mover responsible for the existence of the physical world. James speculated about metaphysical "neutral monism" concerning mind and matter and celebrated religious belief beyond the evidence.

I too have done a fair bit of mundane empirical work -- for example, on the moral behavior of ethics professors (e.g., here and here), on introspective method (e.g., here and here), and on the consequences of exposure to ethical argumentation (e.g., here and here). Even when I am not myself running the empirical studies, much of my work engages with nitty-gritty empirical detail (e.g., on the history of reports of coloration in dreams, on the cognitive capacites of garden snails, on the accuracy of visual imagery reports, and on psychological measures of well-being).

Often, I think, deep empirical mole-digging is valuable for one's subsequent speculative soaring. Digging into the details of cosmological models enables better informed speculation about the distant future. Digging into the details of the behavior of ethics students and professors enables better informed speculation about the general relation between ethical reflection and ethical behavior. Digging into the details of dream reports enables better informed speculation about dream skepticism. As Zhuangzi imagines, a low-lying fish can transform into a soaring phoenix.

No single researcher needs to do both the digging and the soaring, even if some of us enjoy both types of task. But it's valuable to have a whole ecosystem of moles and swallows, foxes and hedgehogs, ants and anteaters, truth philosophers and dare philosophers, and so on.

I'm honored that Machery counts me among the swallows. I celebrate his moleishness. Let's dig and soar!


mbert said...

Perhaps related, Freeman Dyson's "Birds and Frogs":

megatron said...

And of course the classical Erasmusian Foxes and Hedgehogs, and fhe Magister's Pox in Stephen J Gould's delightful book,%2520the%2520Fox,%2520and%2520the%2520Magister%27s%2520Pox_%2520Mending%2520the%2520Gap%2520between%2520Science%2520and%2520the%2520Humanities%2520%2520-Belknap%2520Press%2520of%2520Harvard%2520University%2520Press%2520(2011).pdf&ved=2ahUKEwigqYKDh4-EAxXgQ_EDHWyLC6MQFnoECDMQAQ&usg=AOvVaw0kLqumMH_sEMTfiSbizHJC

Arnold said...

Can we learn to stay between standing and change...

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Seems to me Arnold makes a point. I have always enjoyed the philosophical nuggets. Sellars: on philosophy, and things hanging together; Nagel: reality, and how things are, not how they might be. I don't go to extremes so much, except for the stack of turtles allegory. Sure, swallows and moles are allegorical too. The one that got me closest was Nagel, when he asked: what is it like to be a bat? Years later, on a Pacific beach in Costa Rica, I encountered ghost crabs. Those little guys, the color of sand, moved faster than anything I had ever seen, for their size. They had to. Gulls, Pelicans and the like take whatever they can get, in the water, or out. Ergo, ghost crabs are a little of both: swallow and mole. Black sand crabs need a hole nearby---they stand out. And they are nowhere near as quick as their ghost cousins.Clearly, more mole material. thanks.

Howard said...

Now to take your example of the conscciousness of the USA seriously; Plato's forms was very influential and bore fruit in a way no matter how wrong as it was proved. What will your speculative idea of the US lead to, however cool and how can it be falsified or proven?
It seems to fit the category of idle yet cool speculation