Is Philosophy Harder than Science?

Well, David Papineau writes in the Times Literary Supplement, partly science just is spun-off philosophy.
Still, if truth is the aim, where’s the progress? Wouldn’t philosophy do better simply to hand things over to science, with its proven track record? Well, one answer to this challenge is that philosophy has been doing exactly that for some time. According to the “spin-off” theory of philosophical progress, all new sciences start as branches of philosophy, and only become established as separate disciplines once philosophy has bequeathed them the intellectual wherewithal to survive on their own.

There is certainly something to this story. Physics as we know it was grounded in the seventeenth-century “mechanical philosophy” of Descartes and others. Similarly, much psychology hinges on associationist principles first laid down by David Hume, and economics grew out of doctrines first developed by thinkers who called themselves philosophers. The process continues into the contemporary world. During the twentieth century, both linguistics and computer science broke free of their philosophical moorings to establish themselves as independent disciplines.

According to the spin-off theory, then, the supposed lack of progress in philosophy is an illusion. Whenever philosophy does make progress, it spawns a new subject, which then no longer counts as part of philosophy. In reality, philosophy is full of progress, but this is obscured by the constant renaming of its intellectual progeny.
So what's going on with the questions philosophy retains, where progress is not so evident? Questions like free will, the basis of morality, the nature of knowledge, and the like?

Well, those questions are really hard.

8 comments:

douglas said...

Perhaps the difficulty lay in the fact that one can never find a definite answer to those questions, but that the value is in the asking and attempting to answer them, and the subsequent questions that raises. For some, it seems a futile effort, while for others, it seems the best of quests.

Jason said...

the basis of morality

Social trust within a community. Anything that undermines that trust weakens the community. Enough immorality, the community dies, along with all the members thereof. Morality is a social survival mechanism for sapient social animals.

douglas said...

So that begs the question as to whether morality is the only mechanism for building trust within a community. I would think not- one can establish trust without concerning oneself with morality- Wolves do it. The functional would not seem to be enough to justify morality or be a sufficient basis for it. That it contributes to the function of trust in society is unarguable, however.

Grim said...

the basis of morality... Social trust within a community. Anything that undermines that trust weakens the community. Enough immorality, the community dies...

So, that's close to Protagoras' answer. Something like consensus is all there is to morality. We agree to it, and that's all there is.

But that's not right. Consider courage. Your society might trust each other to provide grain for one another; you might trust one another to secure property rights, so that no one's grain could be redistributed to another. Either of those values, in theory, might apply.

But whichever one of those values your society trusts its members to enforce, courage will be necessary to enforce it. Courage, then, isn't reducible to a consensus about what we will trust one another to enforce. Courage has a moral stature that is independent of social trust, and indeed that social trust cannot exist without.

So that is not the right answer.

Grim said...

But all the same, I salute you for offering it. You have taken the first step on these hardest of questions, where some of the very best of men have failed. Good for you. Welcome.

Jason said...

So that begs the question as to whether morality is the only mechanism for building trust within a community. I would think not- one can establish trust without concerning oneself with morality- Wolves do it.

I would contend that morality IS the only way of building trust within a community. There are other ways to maintain cohesion (force and fear being the most effective absent morality), but those tend to be nasty and rather fragile societies.

If "morality" is defined as "those behaviors and taboos which serve to maintain and strengthen social trust within a community" then that works for me. Wolves have their own, instinct-driven, morality. Those wolves which violate it get driven out or killed. Wolves, like Man, are social animals.

The functional would not seem to be enough to justify morality or be a sufficient basis for it. That it contributes to the function of trust in society is unarguable, however.

Why not? Maybe there's a word missing above ("the functional" what?), but the function of maintaining social trust, and thereby social cohesion in a hostile world, seems a perfectly legitimate basis for morality.

Courage has a moral stature that is independent of social trust, and indeed that social trust cannot exist without.

Courage is moral insofar at it can help strengthen social trust (courage in pursuit of evil ends has the opposite effect, thereby disaggregating "courage" and "morality"), of which there are varying degrees. A low-trust society can still be a society, rather than a mob-war of all against all, but those behaviors and taboos which can strengthen social trust, the classic virtues like courage and honesty and loyalty, raise the overall level of trust in the society, when exercised in pursuit of behaviors which strengthen the community and trust therein.

Likewise taboos, not generally considered virtues per se, are also moral. The expectation that one will not be assaulted, murdered, robbed, etc. by random strangers for instance. Those actions are IMmoral because they undermine social trust. A community in which those behaviors are not taboo is one which is likely to die out or be conquered in short order.

A man alone, interacting with no one and unknown to anyone but himself, can be neither moral nor immoral as his actions affect no one else. He can be stupid and self-destructive, or courageous and honest (with whom?), but in that context, those vices and virtues are amoral. Morality requires other people.

Perhaps I'm answering a question you didn't ask. I've tried to provide a functional definition of "morality" as I understand it. The *basis* of that definition is "survival of the community". The "community" can be small or large, but it must consist of more than one person. The more moral a society, ceteris paribus, the better its chances of survival.

That's my take on it anyway. Apologies for the length. I can be kind of wordy at times:-).

Grim said...

Don't apologize for length. Take your time and think it through.

It's plausible that ethics only exists in cases when more than one person is involved. Moral philosophy does wrestle with questions like suicide, even for a man alone shipwrecked on an island; but for you, that would be a decision without moral content because no one else was affected.

Courage is moral insofar at it can help strengthen social trust (courage in pursuit of evil ends has the opposite effect, thereby disaggregating "courage" and "morality")...

So, you're defining morality as social trust; courage is therefore moral if and only if it increases social trust. I get that. What I'm trying to point out is that courage is a virtue regardless of one's moral ends; whatever they are, courage makes success more likely.

Indeed, you get there when you say that courage is useful even for what are evil ends on your system. So courage is a virtue even for the wicked. You also speak of amoral virtues.

Let's examine that. What is courage, then? How would you define it to avoid connecting it with the moral? The usual definitions say something like, "The capacity do do the right thing in spite of the fear of danger," or "...to do one's duty..." or something similar.

You could swap out "...to do the right thing / duty..." for "to do what you want." But then you have no way of explaining why the virtue of courage is different from a vice like rashness. All that matters is that you have a desire that is dangerous. This sort of thing becomes important if you view courage in its relation to war, for example, the difference between courage and rashness in facing an enemy machinegun position.

So you probably want something stronger than "the capacity to do what I want even when it's dangerous." Yet if you link it to wisdom, duty, or 'the right,' you've linked it back to morality. How do you intend to square that circle?

Grim said...

It seems like you could almost say something about social trust here: 'courage is that quality in a leader that inspires confidence in facing dangers.' That's not completely out of line with Aristotle, say, who really does view courage as a quality of a leader in its most proper form.

But why is this different from rashness? What if the rash man is really inspiring, e.g., because charismatic? It seems as if the courageous face dangers in a particular way, one that we would tend to link to wisdom or 'the right.' Courage inspires social trust because you know the man leading you won't throw your life away pointlessly, and is working in a rational way towards the attainment of your shared ends. Rashness might inspire confidence, but it's a false confidence in a way that the confidence inspired by the courageous man is not. But to see why, you have to point towards wisdom/rightness, i.e., to a kind of morality independent of the social.