What's the opposite of philosophically conservative?

Sat 04 Feb 2012 01:42 PM

In summarizing his philosophical approach to the photographer Steve Pyke, David Lewis said, "I am philosophically conservative: I think philosophy cannot credibly challenge either the positive convictions of common sense or the established theses of the natural sciences and mathematics."*

This seems like an odd thing to say, and I suspect that it summarizes why David Lewis' work has always made me a little uneasy. He conceives of philosophy as doing something separate and outside ordinary or scientific enquiry. Such an approach makes metaphysics a matter of window dressing our beliefs, without any possible influence on what the main doxastic inventory is.

Of course, this kind of conservatism is not unique to Lewis. I gave a job talk once and, during the question and answer period, an epistemologist in the audience objected to my argument on the grounds that it might lead us to disagree with scientists about some things and (he said) he would not want to tell scientists that they were wrong. The best reply to such an objection: But what about when scientists are wrong? It would be perverse not to point that out.**

Diametrically opposed to Lewis' approach is a kind of eliminativist naturalism according to which responsible philosophy is just science that happens to be done in a department called 'Philosophy'. Quine is the posterboy for such an approach. This kind of eliminativism is conservative in its own way, because it means that there is nothing that philosophy as such can add to science. There ends up being no philosophy as such at all.

A natural middle position is to say that philosophers typically address different questions than scientists do. Moreover, the methods appropriate to those questions are not identical to methods appropriate to the natural sciences. There is no sharp boundary between the scientific and the philosophical (Quine is right about that) but there is sufficient difference on either side of the boundary that the existence of philosophy departments is not just as arbitrary administrative fact about universities. Yet the porous nature of the boundary means that the enquiries can have things to say to one another.

Philosophy of science must accept science as for the most part OK. If it yielded total, utter scepticism, then it would stop being philosophy of science and becomes something else. (Mysticism, maybe.) But the qualifier 'for the most part' is important. Philosophers can call into question parts of science. Philosophers of science might even challenge and overturn some canonical examples of good science; what they can't do is overturn all of them.

A further aside: It's odd that Lewis invokes the "convictions of common sense", as if common sense consists primarily of a paddock of inviolate beliefs. As I have argued elsewhere it is better to think of common sense as a commitment to giving prima facie trust to certain methods and inferences. For example, seeing x is prima facie reason to believe that x exists. The same holds for the sciences: They are in the first place a matter of method rather than a matter of conviction.

* HT: Steinblog.

** I do not recall what answer I actually gave. I recall being shocked by the objection, and I might just have said "Really?!?"


from: John S. Wilkins

Sat 04 Feb 2012 04:01 PM

The alternative to Lewis' conservatism about the results of common sense, or a revised form of it in science, is to think that philosophy can find things out about the world using its own special techniques, a view that Plato and Aristotle held: science by definition. But philosophy resolves philosophical conundrums, not scientific ones or even common sense ones. It is a category error to think that philosophical method is a way to give scientific results; so Lewis is, in my view, correct. Science is not done by definition - the rationalists were wrong.

That said I agree that there is a porous membrane between science and philosophy, and parts of philosophy keep hiving off and becoming science (X-Phi may be doing that right now), and it is also true that science has no unique and universal method (which is a philosophical result); and both philosophy and common sense are always hostage to scientific results. Likewise, science and common sense are, in their proper domains, hostage to philosophy in its domain.

from: dave smith

Sun 05 Feb 2012 07:16 PM

I don't see how Wilkins can accept a porous membrane on the one hand and that Lewis is correct on the other -- positions seem incommensurable. It seems equally incommensurable with the reification of problem domains implicit in the idea that there are specific "philosophical" conundrums unique to that domain. From whence do these arise, exactly? They are certainly not historically stable, which makes them categorically suspect. How are these boundaries maintained, and how does is the transubstantiation from philosophy to science supposed to make sense on the hard borders between domains or even be consistent with it??

Additionally, this is a pretty rough reading of Aristotle -- hylomorphic analysis hinges on observation in many intellectual domains, in contrast to Plato. How Aristotelian science relates to modern science or modern philosophy is not nearly this neat and simple.

from: jay odenbaugh

Tue 07 Feb 2012 06:54 PM

P. D.,

You are correct that scientists have been wrong it is surely appropriate to point that out. Lewis would agree. My suspicion is that Lewis would say it is the work of other scientists that would show that not that of philosophers. Of course, if you think that philosophy and science differ only in degree then I don't see why philosophers can't point to those errors. But this is how I think he would respond.

On the other hand, I don't think Lewis is as conservative as he takes himself to be. For example, he takes modal claims to be true but their truthmakers to be possible worlds that we have no causal contact with; moreover, you don't exist in these worlds, but counterparts make modal claims regarding you, true. Now, I think modal realism is a serious position but I don't think that it is common sensical. Here he maybe is similar to Berkeley -- he gives you back what you believed to begin with but does so by characterizing those claims in unfamiliar terms.

In my view, philosophy is a of a piece with inquiry in general (including science, the arts, etc.). However, it seems to be me in good Australian fashion some of the notions that interest philosophers are "topic-neutral" and as such are not the province of any particular science. In classic philosophy of science, we have notions like "explanation", "causation", etc.