Why doesn’t philosophy progress from debate to consensus? | Aeon Essays

Source: Why doesn’t philosophy progress from debate to consensus? | Aeon Essays

My first thought on this article was to be puzzled by the idea that Molyneux problem is not trivial. Surely any person handling and feeling a sphere will notice the continuous symmetry of that experience relative to rotations of position relative to the object whereas that of handling the cube is only discrete (one feels edges and corners at different positions depending on one’s orientation relative to the cube). And similarly. the visual experience of thesphere is the same from all directions but that of the cube is not. So why would anyone not immediately make the correct identification on first seeing and comparing the objects?(but see third comment below!!)
My thought on progress in philosophy is that once a question becomes sufficiently well defined for consensus to be possible it becomes, by definition, a question of what we now call science. What is now called ‘Philosophy’ thus remains the domain where we try to come to grips with what is really meant by questions posed in the languages that we inherit from our almost pre-human ancestors with words like “should” and “good” and “why” which often express a mix of feelings that may vary from person to person and tribe to tribe.
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3 Responses to Why doesn’t philosophy progress from debate to consensus? | Aeon Essays

  1. alan says:

    Chris Daly’s reply:
    Thanks Alan – you make a great number of valuable points. Now, as in politics, so in philosophy, very often what seems obvious or trivial to one person is anything but to another. Molyneux’s problem is a case in point. Molyneux, Locke and Berkeley would disagree with you. Here is one reply they might make. Can your subject do any better than guess correctly which visual impressions would go with which tactual impressions? The two sets of impressions are intrinsically quite different. To tell which goes with which – not just to guess – the subject would have to have experience in correlating the one set of impressions with the other. And that would mean physically manipulating the objects.

    On the issue of progress in philosophy, it’s not clear to me that philosophical questions become ‘sufficiently well defined’ that they become part of science nor that, even if they did, that that fact would enable them to be answered. Some reasons:

    (1) You don’t provide examples but, in any case, even if some examples were forthcoming, how confident should we be at generalising beyond that sample to the full range of philosophical problems?

    (2) What counts as a question being ‘sufficiently well defined’? Does a question count as sufficiently well defined only if it repurposed as a scientific question – making your claim trivial rather than substantive?

    (3) What, on your view, has delayed the scores of philosophical problems from becoming sufficiently well defined in your sense? Why isn’t the process of sharpening up their definitions and handing them over to science to solve something that is behind us? What’s holding things up?

    (4) Could it be that many philosophical questions resist being sufficiently well defined in your sense? Perhaps questions about the existence of God or of free will or of the external world or of moral facts remain clear enough for us to understand but resist a more precise formulation for them to be resolved by the process you envisage.

    (5) With all that said, I find it hard to see how any empirical evidence that science could provide could solve the problem of the external world, no matter how the definition of ‘the external world’ is sharpened, since that problem calls into question the reliability of all empirical evidence. And that reinforces the doubt I expressed in point (1).

  2. alan says:

    My reply to Chris Daly:

    Thank you Chris for taking the trouble to give such a detailed reply to my comment.

    With regard to Molyneux, I don’t think my suggestion as to how one might make the right assignment is either a guess, or requires manipulation while sighted in order to relate the tactile and visual impressions. My point is just that even a naive blind observer would note that on every direction of contact the sphere feels the same, whereas for the cube that is not the case. (In mathematical terms the tactile experience of a sphere has a continuous symmetry while that of the cube does not, but no-one needs any knowledge of mathematics to feel the difference.) It is also true that the suddenly sighted observer who is denied tactile contact with the objects will note that he can trace the boundary of his view of the sphere with continuous smooth eye movement whereas to trace that of his view of the cube always requires sudden changes of direction. So it is more logical to associate the visual experience of the sphere with the object that felt smooth.

    To support this idea that we have an innate appreciation of such differences regardless of the mode in which they are sensed by us, if I were more diligent, I would look up and cite studies that I recall which show a cross-cultural tendency of humans to associate staccatic consonants like ‘k’ and ‘b’ with cornered shapes and sibilants like ‘s’ and ‘f’ with smooth ones. (Oh heck, it was too easy for even lazy old me to skip – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouba/kiki_effect for something along similar lines – albeit not quite the same distinction of consonants.)

    With regard to my other point,
    (1) Examples of what I meant include the resolution of philosophical questions about motion, heat, and vitality by a process of refining and uniformising our language making vague terms like “energy’, “heat”, ‘temperature” and “metabolism”, more and more precise with a progressively more universally shared understanding until the questions became matters that could be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction by observation and experiment. It was never my intent to suggest that I have any idea of how to complete that same process with currently outstanding philosophical problems.
    (2) I was intending just to make an observation rather than a claim, so I plead guilty to being trivial rather than substantive. My observation was just that when an area of philosophy does become resolved in a way that everyone agrees on how to verify the answer, then we tend to call it science. So when progress in philosophy does happen, it is hard to notice.
    (3) In my opinion, what is holding things up is the fact that the words we use to pose philosophical problems are based on subjective emotional feelings as much as or more than shared objective observations and so carry meanings which vary from person to person.
    (4) So indeed, I do think that “many philosophical questions resist being sufficiently well defined”. But to me that is because it is NOT true that such questions “remain clear enough for us to understand”. I think (or at least suspect) that the ideas of empirical vacuity, linguistic analysis, and social construction of philosophical propositions are all expressing a common idea with different emphases.
    (5) The problem of the external world is a useful case in point. What does it mean to ask if the external world really exists? We all mean something subtly different when we say something “really exists”. For me it means that the name of that something is a label I attach to some aspect of my experience which, in my experience, appears to be part of what, in my experience, appear to be the experiences of entities capable of having experiences similar to my own. I could, in principle, be, from the point of view of some observer outside my experience, just a brain in a vat. But if that observer is really outside my experience then it doesn’t matter to me. And the question of which scenario is “really” true is as meaningless to me as that of my existence is to Super Mario’s sense of agency and free will when he decides whether or not to jump that next gap.

  3. alan says:

    P.S. I have just discovered that not only was my observation re Molyneux not trivial, it was also at least to some extent not true!
    (see https://jov.arvojournals.org/article.aspx?articleid=2137231 )
    But before completely digesting this dose of crow I would really like to see a less humane experiment in which the subjects were given time to develop their visual processing skills without any opportunity for tactile confirmation (as I still think it possible that the concept of a corner might become apparent from thinking about the visual field alone with its relation to the corresponding tactile experience being something that could then be inferred)

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