Philosopher Drops Some Bombs


There’s a fun interview with University of Waterloo’s John Turri at 3:AM Magazine in which he blithely drops a few philosophy bombs:

The first is a general claim about contemporary philosophy:

[U]nfortunately, a lot of contemporary philosophical scholarship is a decadent maze of involuted, introverted, and sterile conversations about narrow and artificial topics.

Hold on a second. I’m not sure exactly what he means by “artificial” (for there’s a sense of “artificial” in which all philosophical problems are artificial) but I suspect he has in mind something like “merely an artifact of our linguistic practice.” If all philosophy were like this, then sure, we’d have a problem. But it’s not. Further, it’s important to remember that sometimes we don’t know that a philosophical inquiry is going to end up being decadent and artificial until after we’ve done it. And even then it may have some value as a lesson or as exercise or as pleasure.

Then there’s this claim about traditional philosophical method and more empirical methods of inquiry, and the connection of this difference to gender issues in philosophy:

Any area of inquiry, philosophy included, ought to be closely informed by relevant methods and findings from other disciplines. To do otherwise is at best silly and at worst willfully ignorant and arrogant. In my view, that is a completely separate issue from how philosophy and various other disciplines, including psychology, are perceived by the broader intellectual culture or general public. If it turned out that being better informed resulted in philosophical inquiry being less favorably perceived, then I would count that as an unfortunate cost of doing business the right way.

Nevertheless, as things turn out, the opposite is probably true. In a series of behavioral experiments, Wesley Buckwalter and I found that people generally favor empirical methodology to armchair methodology, and they tend, correctly, to associate the former with psychology and the latter with philosophy. (This finding was replicated by another research group.) So being better informed by empirical findings and methods will probably improve the perception of philosophical inquiry. Moreover, this methodological preference was significantly stronger for women than for men. And since psychology and philosophy are closely related disciplines dealing with many of the same issues, a plausible hypothesis is that this gender-based methodological disparity contributes to the fact that philosophy attracts mostly men, whereas psychology attracts mostly women.

We then get more specifically targeted bombs, such as this one on the Gettier problem:

The Gettier problem is contemporary epistemology’s version of fake news.

First of all, it is a lie that philosophers traditionally defined knowledge as justified true belief (“JTB”). Gettier criticized a view that nearly no philosopher ever held. Roderick Chisholm might have been, at one point, the only one. But “Philosophers Since Plato Wrong about Knowledge!” is a better headline than “A Philosopher Wrong about Knowledge!” Second, there was never any evidence that JTB was the “commonsense” view either, and recent work by experimental philosophers, particularly Christina Starmans and Ori Friedman, shows that it is not the commonsense view. So it was a fake problem, with no basis in either commonsense epistemology or the history of the discipline. Finally, the problem is not hard to solve. So when it is discussed, an avalanche of distinctions, complications, and permutations must quickly subdue the uninitiated, who might otherwise dare to think the problem pedestrian or, worse, speak a solution. It has required effort, including self-deception and indoctrination, for philosophers to continue pretending, for decades, that the Gettier problem is a profound and formidable challenge. We owe our students, ourselves, and the wider intellectual community better than this.

And these remarks on “ought implies can”:

I guess that most Western intellectuals have heard the slogan “ought implies can,” or the view, endorsed by many moral philosophers, that if you have a moral obligation, it automatically follows that you’re able to fulfill it. These philosophers typically defend the view on the grounds that it is reflected in the very meaning of moral language or that it is a core commitment of commonsense morality. But there are theoretical reasons to reject the “ought implies can” principle, and some philosophers, myself included, do not find it the least bit plausible. But that is a separate question from whether commonsense morality is committed to “ought implies can,” which is something that Wesley Buckwalter and I set out to test a few years ago. The results were absolutely clear: commonsense morality implicitly rejects “ought implies can.” Over and over again, in a wide range of circumstances, we found that people overwhelmingly attributed moral obligations to people unable to fulfill them. In some cases, nearly 90% of people respond this way. The principal finding has been replicated in many ways and by multiple labs. At this point, it is clear that, contrary to what its philosophical proponents have claimed, “ought implies can” is revisionary.

(By the way, on this last topic I recommend you check out Moral Failure: On The Impossible Demands of Morality, by Lisa Tessman, or her entry on this in OUP’s “Philosophy in Action” series of small books, When Doing the Right Thing Is Impossible.)

All around, an interesting read.

David Schnell, “Landscaping”

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Fritz Warfield
Fritz Warfield
4 years ago

I see where he says that the Gettier problem is “not hard to solve” — I wish he’d given a reference to where he (or someone else) solves it. I don’t think everyone means the same thing by “the Gettier problem” so hopefully whoever it is he thinks solved it said what they take “the” problem to be.Report

Fritz Warfield
Fritz Warfield
Reply to  Grad
4 years ago

If by “solve” he means “write a paper claiming to solve” then he’s joined a large club. I guess we’ll eventually see whether the author’s attempt is recognized as successful by epistemologists other than the author.Report

John Turri
Reply to  Fritz Warfield
4 years ago

Yeah, of course, by “solve” I meant “receive the approval of epistemologists.” Lol.Report

Fritz Warfield
Fritz Warfield
Reply to  John Turri
4 years ago

So it’s “not hard” to solve the problem but other epistemologists won’t accept the solution? Is that because though it’s not hard we won’t understand? Or is it that we won’t approve out of intellectual dishonesty?Report

John Turri
Reply to  Fritz Warfield
4 years ago

In response to your first question: some will, many won’t. As to why, I don’t think that either of your proposed explanations (inability and dishonesty) are plausible. A more likely explanation would include some combination of socialization, selection effect, and habit.Report

John Turri
Reply to  Grad
4 years ago

Thanks, Grad, but that’s not really what I was referring to.Report

Another Grad
Another Grad
Reply to  John Turri
4 years ago

The article linked by Grad does show you (seemingly) taking the problem seriously, however. To me, it looks like you’re engaging squarely with the tradition you criticize. Is this discrepancy the result of you having some years (hence, some realizations about the problem) behind you since that publication?Report

Another Grad
Another Grad
Reply to  Another Grad
4 years ago

I should qualify that I mean, by ‘the problem’, *an* understanding of what that means, since you note that half the trouble has been the widespread lack of agreement on what exactly Gettier cases show (if anything).Report

John Turri
Reply to  Another Grad
4 years ago

Another Grad, yes, that’s a big part of it.Report

Philodemus
Philodemus
Reply to  John Turri
4 years ago

What were you referring to?Report

John Turri
Reply to  Fritz Warfield
4 years ago

Fritz,

I included hyperlinks to many references, via hyperlinks, in my written responses to Richard Marshall’s questions, but it looks like they were not included in the published version.

It’s a monumental understatement that not everyone means the same thing by “the Gettier problem.” One possible meaning is to diagnose why the agents lack knowledge in Gettier’s original cases. Many people have done that and it’s no longer an interesting exercise. Another possible meaning is to diagnose why agents lack knowledge in cases that share the relevant structure of Gettier’s original cases and/or other cases that have also been, in some instances misleadingly, labelled “Gettier cases.” You can find evidence regarding this project in these publications:

Starmans, C., & Friedman, O. (2012). The folk conception of knowledge. Cognition, 124(3), 272–283.

Turri, J., Buckwalter, W., & Blouw, P. (2015). Knowledge and luck. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 22(2), 378–390.

Blouw, P., Buckwalter, W., & Turri, J. (in press). Gettier cases: a taxonomy. In R. Borges, C. de Almeida, & P. Klein (Eds.), Explaining knowledge: new essays on the Gettier problem. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Turri, J. (2016). Knowledge judgments in “Gettier” cases. In J. Sytsma & W. Buckwalter (Eds.), A companion to experimental philosophy (pp. 337–348). Wiley-Blackwell.

Another possible construal of some people’s use of “the Gettier problem” is the project of explaining why knowledge cannot be correctly defined as JTB. For a start, one reason is that knowledge does not require belief.Report

Grymes
Grymes
Reply to  John Turri
4 years ago

John,
If you feel that way about the Gettier problem, why have you spent so much time reading, thinking, conducting experiments, and writing about the Gettier problem? I ask sincerely: I often have the same question about my own writing.Report

John Turri
Reply to  Grymes
4 years ago

Grymes,

That’s a good question. It’s a combination of several things.

Personal connection: I did my undergraduate work at Wayne State University, which is where Gettier worked when he published his paper in 1963. This predisposed me to pay attention to “the” problem.

Conformity: some of the work was mainly an extension or application of other things I was working on early in my career. I chose to extend or apply it in this direction partly because of the false way that the topic is typically described. It’s worth working toward a solution on “perennial” problems, right?

Institutional incentives: the work I just mentioned was well received, so I received invitations from people I respect to write more about it. It is hard to turn down such invitations pre-tenure.

Case study: compared to the sprawling, haphazard development of the literature in philosophy journals over five decades, replete with conflicting claims about what the “intuitive” or clearly correct judgment is about cases, the advantage of conducting simple, properly controlled experiments is clear. So it provides a case study in how helpful experimentation can be to philosophical theorizing about ordinary concepts. (This is part of the reason why Christina Starman and Ori Friedman’s paper, “The folk concept of knowledge,” is so valuable.)Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
4 years ago

I haven’t done much experimental philosophy, but I wonder how much heavy lifting “implicitly” is doing in this sentence: “commonsense morality implicitly rejects ‘ought implies can.'” Couldn’t it be that people are committed to positions that, upon reflection, they reject? I suspect that something like this is going on with both “ought implies can” and the compatibilism/incompatibilism debate. My students seem to be incompatibilists when I explain to them what determinism is, the garden of forking paths, etc., but they seem to be compatibilists when we get to particular cases. So maybe people accept “ought implies can” in the abstract, but reject it when it comes to particular cases (same with moral luck as well).

That’s my suspicion, anyway.Report

John Turri
Reply to  Robert Gressis
4 years ago

Robert,

Yes, “implicitly” is important because the experiments I’m referring to look at patterns in first-order judgments about abilities and obligations to see whether they violate what we would expect if people “implicitly” accepted something like OIC (by, say, always representing moral obligations as fulfillable by the agent). As far as I’m aware, no one has run a survey asking people for their opinion of OIC’s thesis statement, or anything like that.

Yes, you’re right, it could be that people are committed, implicitly or explicitly, to positions that, upon reflection, they reject. And it’s possible that people who reject a principle in practice would accept it in the abstract. (I know that many philosophers reject OIC upon reflection and in the abstract.) The only way we’ll find out whether there is any detectable central tendency in moral judgment regarding OIC (or incompatibilism, etc.) in this respect is through further, careful studies.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  John Turri
4 years ago

“The only way we’ll find out whether there is any detectable central tendency in moral judgment regarding OIC (or incompatibilism, etc.) in this respect is through further, careful studies.”

On your view of things, would that discovery have philosophical interest? Would it just be a corrective to bad philosophizing? Or is there something more you think we’d learn if we figured this out?

When I talk to students about ought implying can, I point to cases in the law and everyday life where the existence of an incapacity of some sort diminishes our holding one another responsible for what we do (instances of the contraposition: what cannot be done is not obliged). Isn’t that enough to get ‘ought implies can’ on the table as a principle worth considering the force and scope of? Whether it’s some crystaline law etched on our souls, uncovered (only?) through the auspices of X-phi, or just a rough-and-ready guide for navigating social boundaries, isn’t there meaningful philosophical work to be done in looking at specific cases and seeing whether, in the details, what ought to be must also be possible? I’m thinking of cases in medical ethics, for instance. Surely there’s still philosophical work to be done on the question of whether ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ when questions of medical autonomy are on the table. Is that (for instance) anything that X-phi speaks to?Report

John Turri
Reply to  Preston Stovall
4 years ago

Preston,

I’m not sure what you mean by “philosophical interest,” but I assume that you mean it could answer a philosophical question or help advance a philosophical project. If that’s right, then my answer is “yes.” One aim of a whole swath of philosophical projects is to get clear on what Sellars called “the manifest image.” Insofar as I correctly understand what Robert was suggesting, such studies would contribute to those projects.

You raise an interesting, important, and still open question about *the scope* of inability’s relevance to moral judgments! This was actually a natural next step in the development of some ongoing research programs on commonsense morality. I think that the phrase “holding one another responsible” goes beyond what “ought implies can” pertains to. OIC attempts to state a condition on having moral obligations or responsibilities. But “holding people responsible” is a more serious business than their merely having responsibilities. Inability does diminish our willingness to hold people responsible, even when it leaves untouched the judgment that they have (and have failed to fulfill) certain moral responsibilities. (This paper contains some relevant evidence: http://john.turri.org/research/semicompatibilism.pdf)

You also raise another interesting question about OIC’s status in specific domains, such as medical contexts. Existing work has examined a range of contexts and the results have been very consistent, but, as far as I can recall, nothing specifically medical. More generally, based on the current evidence, I don’t think that anyone should strongly rule out the possibility that there is a potential interaction between willingness to attribute unfulfillable responsibilities, on the one hand, and the type of context under consideration, on the other.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  John Turri
4 years ago

Thanks John, I appreciate the reference to manifest image projects. It’s on that front that I’m puzzled about what X-phi is up to (and I confess this is due to ignorance on my part, so I appreciate your taking the time to respond). Because persons have a kind of explanatory priority in the framework of the manifest image, and because characterizing persons qua persons in the manifest image requires using normative or evaluative language, it isn’t clear to me how the (apparently?) descriptive resources of the statistical sampling of intuitions bears on issues of philosophical interest concerning the manifest image.

And sorry, I could have been clearer about what I mean by the ‘philosophical interest’ of X-phi. I tend to think of philosophy as the domain of normative science, an inquiry that principally subsumes aesthetics (where this is broad enough to include certain theories of perception and other affective states), logic (where this is broad enough to include certain theories of knowledge, belief, and metaphysics), and ethics (where this is broad enough to include certain theories of action). So, my question was whether X-phi tells us anything about the rules that govern what we (ought to) feel, say, and do in various contexts. Does X-phi give us any guidance into ethics (e.g.) as a normative science? I could see how it might disconfirm broad pronouncements about tendencies to endorse principles like ‘ought implies can’. But does it make any positive claims about that principle or its role in our moral reasoning?

Just to be clear, the stuff about ‘holding one another responsible’ wasn’t meant to be any kind of heavyweight institutional or procedural enforcing of accountability—what I mean is that we tend to hedge our judgments of defect or error over a person who has violated a norm when we discover the person could not (in some sense) have done otherwise. I think of ‘ought implies can’, as appealed to in theories of morality, as a specific application of a more general feature of the logic of practical rationality. Its general form is an implication relation between the strong deontic and the weak alethic modalities (and the corresponding implications from their duals by negation). This more general principle orients our reasoning at the interface of normative and descriptive cognition. I’m not convinced there’s any hard-and-fast rule or law in this vicinity, but it does seem like a principle from which we commonly reason in various contexts. And I’m convinced it’s right to think about certain social and ethical issues by its light.

It’s just not apparent to me what I’m supposed to take from X-phi discoveries about people’s proclivities to endorse different OIC principles. Are they supposed to shed light on the questions of philosophy as a normative science? Does an X-phi result in this vicinity tell me anything about what, say, I should tell my nursing students concerning one’s duties of care to a patient with a diminishing capacity for autonomous decision making? I hope it’s clear I’m not demanding or expecting that it should–I’m genuinely puzzled by what X-phi is up to vis a vis philosophy.Report

John Turri
Reply to  Preston Stovall
4 years ago

Hi Preston,

In response to this: “Because persons have a kind of explanatory priority in the framework of the manifest image, and because characterizing persons qua persons in the manifest image requires using normative or evaluative language, it isn’t clear to me how the (apparently?) descriptive resources of the statistical sampling of intuitions bears on issues of philosophical interest concerning the manifest image.” Empirical research bears on this because it can reveal what normative or evaluative properties have in the manifest image. Empirical research also bears on the prior question of whether persons occupy that position in the manifest image.

In response to this: “Does X-phi give us any guidance into ethics (e.g.) as a normative science?” Yes, it can and already has by, for example, revealing various tendencies and biases that can distort moral reasoning, and by identifying strategies to help diminish or eliminate those distortions.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Preston Stovall
4 years ago

Thanks for the response John, this helps. A couple quick thoughts.

“Empirical research bears on this because it can reveal what normative or evaluative properties have in the manifest image.”

I agree that X-phi can reveal what people tend to judge when it comes to the normative properties of things in the manifest image. But that’s not to say it reveals what normative properties things actually have, which is where I see philosophy (as the pursuit of the normative sciences) situated.

“In response to this: “Does X-phi give us any guidance into ethics (e.g.) as a normative science?” Yes, it can and already has by, for example, revealing various tendencies and biases that can distort moral reasoning, and by identifying strategies to help diminish or eliminate those distortions.”

Thanks, this is the kind of thing I was wondering about. Seems like there’s good work to be done here!Report

John Turri
Reply to  Preston Stovall
4 years ago

No problem, Preston, glad it was helpful.

I think that we might be talking past one another a bit when it comes to the “manifest image” project. I suppose that’s not too surprising, though, given that it is just a metaphor. There is a descriptive project of “delineat[ing the] manifest image,” which Sellars says is a “task of the first importance” (_Science, Perception and Reality_, p. 15). I take the question “what normative properties do things actually have?” to be part of another very important project that goes beyond the one just mentioned.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Preston Stovall
4 years ago

Thanks John, I do think we may have been talking past each other; I suspect we also disagree about what it is to delineate the manifest image, but that now looks like a terminological or exegetical dispute more than anything else. We seem to agree that the descriptive and prescriptive or normative projects each have their places. And at any rate, I think I see now how the descriptive project would bear on the prescriptive one.Report

John Turri
4 years ago

Hi Justin,

Thanks for the post and sharing some of your thoughts.

By “artificial” I did not mean an artifact of ordinary linguistic practice. It is more like an artifact of professionalization in a sub-discipline (e.g. in epistemology, many strands of the conversation regarding “the Gettier problem”). That’s not always a bad thing and it’s probably unavoidable to a certain extent. But when deciding how to spend our limited time and energy, we should be mindful of the cost, relative to topics whose value and relevance can be more broadly appreciated.

Also, you’re right that my characterization was a “general claim,” but I do want to emphasize that by “a lot” I certainly don’t mean “al” or even “most.” But, for my taste, it’s too much. (Yes, in case you or anyone else reading along was wondering: I include some of my own work in this category.)Report

Ludwig Moore-Russell
Ludwig Moore-Russell
4 years ago

Quoting our author:
“(U]nfortunately, a lot of contemporary philosophical scholarship is a decadent maze of involuted, introverted, and sterile conversations about narrow and artificial topics.” (And the Gettier project is then picked out as a prime example.)
 
“Decadent, sterile, narrow, and artificial”? That prompts some musings:
 
Yes, that claim is surely true of some contemporary philosophy. And maybe THE AUTHOR’S OWN BRAND of experimental philosophy does better. Maybe it is, not decadent, sterile, narrow, and artificial, but a search for the keys to broad and natural problems of perennial human interest?! Unfortunately, THOSE keys are not to be found under a convenient street lamp, where poll resuts are easily gathered. Such statistical “results” may drive easy publications and citations, but showing what? Too often, just something trivial about ordinary usage, something not even of much interest to the science of linguistics (not even when they manage to be replicated). Much less are philosophers generally interested in what can be found under that convenient lamp. The keys they want are in darker areas where imagination and theorizing must light our way. Philosophical problems are mostly not about how people (undergraduates) use words, but about justice, responsibility, freedom, causation, knowledge, etc. For many philosophers, it is the phenomena themselves that are of interest, not the words that in various uses might pick out various aspects of those phenomena. Mathematics is not about how undergraduates use words like “square,” and the same goes for the best philosophy. (That allows for overlap between philosophy and semantics, beyond survey-mongering, and allows also for philosophers to draw on theoretical results in cognitive science, psychology, biology, physics and other serious sciences, where simple-minded surveys count for little or nothing.)
 
Try Plato in the Theaetetus on knowledge, in the Republic on justice, in the Euthyphro on piety, and so on, footnotes to which constitute the history of much of the best philosophy through millennia. Best interpreted, the Gettier project is in that Platonic tradition. “Decadent, sterile, narrow, and artificial” seems more clearly true of the cheap objection, and of its ideological background, than of its intended target.Report

Benji
Benji
Reply to  Ludwig Moore-Russell
4 years ago

There isn’t much substance in your critique of x-phi, and what you have argued is weak.

First, if x-phi is in fact “not even of much interest to the science of linguistics”, then they can join the club with practically all other philosophy.

Second, you dismiss x-phi findings as showing “just something trivial about ordinary usage” – I think many x-phi folks would more or less agree, and would point out that many philosophers routinely rely on unfounded claims and presuppositions about ordinary usage; why is it bad to test these claims and assumptions, especially since many have shown to be wrong?

Third, you claim that good philosophers are, for example, interested in justice, not the way people use the word “justice”. True, few would simply equate justice itself with the extension of the term “justice” as used by ordinary folks – but the idea that there is a deep connection between the thing and the standards of a linguistic community is one of the core themes of 20th century philosophy, so your strongly-worded critique takes as given a distinction that many find problematic in some way.Report

John Turri
Reply to  Ludwig Moore-Russell
4 years ago

Just to add something to Benji’s astute reply, within philosophy, there is a long tradition of taking commonsense and ordinary usage seriously, partly as an object worthy of study in its own right, and partly as a (obviously fallible but potentially useful) potential guide to reality. Those holding this view include, but are not limited to, Wilfrid Sellars, Thomas Reid, Aristotle, and the Nyaya school of classical Indian philosophy. So your remarks seem to omit something important from what “philosophers generally” are interested in.Report

John Turri
Reply to  Ludwig Moore-Russell
4 years ago

Also, this: “The keys they want are in darker areas where imagination and theorizing must light our way. Philosophical problems are mostly not about how people (undergraduates) use words, but about justice, responsibility, freedom, causation, knowledge, etc. For many philosophers, it is the phenomena themselves that are of interest, not the words that in various uses might pick out various aspects of those phenomena. That allows for … philosophers to draw on theoretical results in cognitive science, psychology, biology, physics and other serious sciences.”

Is that why so much contemporary philosophical discussion of knowledge is broadly apprised of the things that the cognitive, social, and life sciences have discovered about how knowledge (the actual state or relation itself) is acquired, stored, and used? Oh, wait …Report

Preston
Preston
4 years ago

“[U]nfortunately, a lot of contemporary philosophical scholarship is a decadent maze of involuted, introverted, and sterile conversations about narrow and artificial topics.”

Whenever some philosopher makes a comment like this–which some famous philosopher does, every month or so–I think there’s a certain faux controversial-ness that makes it get a lot of attention (makes it look like the person is “dropping bombs”). Basically, most practicing philosophers think a combination of (a) there are a lot of silly, narrow, and meaningless debates in analytic philosophy, and (b) the stuff I work on is not one of those things–if its narrow, its narrow for some important reason.
Then when some philosopher says ‘So much of what gets worked on is narrow, sterile, useless’ etc. everyone just gets to plug in their favored ‘useless’ disputes and nod along in agreement.
But once a specific debate is named as one of those that is ‘narrow’, ‘sterile’, or ‘artificial’, those who work on the literature in question come out and provide spirited defenses of the debate and why it matters for our broader epistemological/metaphysical/ethical/political thinking.

My worry is that claims like this are like saying “Politicians are so corrupt!” without naming any specific politicians. They allow people to feel like brave iconoclasts, by being vague enough for most people to fill in the details in a way that makes them agree.

I’m not blaming Dr. Turri for this–he’s just answering questions. And I don’t even disagree with him (since I accept (a) and (b), so I can fill in my favored ‘sterile’ topics to interpret it as true). I just wish these kinds of claims didn’t get all the attention that they do, given that they aren’t really as bold as they superficially appear.Report

Philodemus
Philodemus
Reply to  Preston
4 years ago

To be fair to Turri, he did mention the Gettier problem instead of leaving the reader to “plug in” what he meant. But, overall, I strongly sympathize with what you’re saying, Preston. In general, I’m pretty tired of these “a lot of philosophy is decadent/sterile/artificial/narrow/shitty” comments from well-established philosophers.Report

John Turri
Reply to  Philodemus
4 years ago

Philodemus,

Thanks for pointing that out.

I’m sorry if general criticisms of this sort annoy you. I’ve always appreciated Dan Dennett’s cautionary points regarding “higher-order truths about chmess,” which I was first exposed to as a graduate student at Brown. If you haven’t come across it previously, then perhaps his way of putting the point will be more to your liking (https://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/papers/chmess.pdf).Report

John Turri
Reply to  Preston
4 years ago

Preston,

I appreciate that you recognize that only so much can be covered in the space of an interview. But I’ve not been vague or coy about this in my published work. I have argued, in print, that philosophers have spent decades debating and theorizing about “data” that don’t exist. For instance, how much of contemporary epistemology has been shaped by the claim that “we” would not say that the person in “fake barn country” knows? The evidence shows that “we” would and do say that.

Of course, you would expect some people with a vested interest in (a particular thread of) a topic to defend it out of habit or self-interest, regardless of the topic’s actual merits. Ultimately, what matters is the content of the defense (and, of course, the critique).Report

Preston
Preston
Reply to  John Turri
4 years ago

Hi John,
Thanks for your response. I enjoy your work on these topics, but to be clear, surely there is a difference between “Topic X is narrow/sterile/a waste of our time.” and “Our study of Topic X has relied on bad data–here’s better data.”

I took your Gettier and ought-implies-can criticisms to be of the latter sort, and so not falling under the statement I was criticizing above.Report

John Turri
Reply to  Preston
4 years ago

Hi Preston,

I don’t think I follow. Those two things are clearly distinct and we can have either without the other. But they can also be related, depending on the details of the debate and the data. Consider a thread of a professional debate in which theories of knowledge (or epistemic modals, or a norm of assertion, etc.) are evaluated in light of their ability to “explain” our strong tendency to deny knowledge in fake-barn cases. That is obviously narrow. And because the tendency *does not exist*, a genuine explanation cannot be produced, in which case the debate is sterile and not worth our time.Report

docfe
docfe
4 years ago

Well, everyone has an opinion, but I see this as “I’m on the air and have to make outlandish statements that get me noticed.” Sorry, I may be wrong, but it smacks of getting publicity a la Trump Tweets.Report

John Turri
Reply to  docfe
4 years ago

Exactly! Because I have at my disposal no other way to communicate on the internet or get people to notice ideas.

If you want to debate specific claims, I’m willing to listen. But when the opening move comes wrapped in a comparison to Trump, it makes me skeptical that serious disagreement is in the offing.Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
Reply to  John Turri
4 years ago

Eh, at this point Americans say “Trump” as often as smurfs say “smurf”.Report

Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

This sort of thing always raises a red-flag for me:

“…Finally, the problem is not hard to solve. So when it is discussed, an avalanche of distinctions, complications, and permutations must quickly subdue the uninitiated, who might otherwise dare to think the problem pedestrian or, worse, speak a solution…”

As a rank amateur, it’s very seductive to hear from a “pro”, that actually, my everyday flippant intuitions about various paradoxes are good enough, and that I don’t actually need to spend more time thinking about those problems, because they’re just an institutional conspiracy to trap me into chasing my tail.

But, then there’s the little problem, that *this is what philosophy is for*. Pursuing questions that have seemingly have no good answer, in an attempt to improve what we might be able to say about them. What is “truth”, what is “goodness”, what is “beauty”, what is “self”, what is “freedom”, what is “knowledge”? Don’t waste your time, says he, because you already know! Your intuitive best-guess is good enough to get you through the day-to-day, and anything more complex than that is just a bunch of naval-gazing pinheads trying to make you look stupid!

I can’t even tell you how loudly that resonates with certain parts of me. And that’s precisely why the other part of me says, “oh, really?”. Whenever someone tells me “don’t go there” and it sounds convincing, that part of me says, “ok, let’s go there”.Report

John Turri
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

Greg,

I can see how it might seem suspicious when viewed that way. But “the Gettier problem” is not the same thing as giving a correct theory of knowledge (or “knowledge”), “the Gettier problem” is not a paradox, “not hard to solve” doesn’t mean “you already know in virtue of everyday flippant intuitions,” and I said nothing at all about beauty, the self, or freedom.Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  John Turri
4 years ago

Hey, thanks! That’s great!Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
4 years ago

It seems to me that Turri is guilty of the same sins he’s preaching against at least as far as the “ought implies can” issue goes. As anyone who’s taught undergraduate ethics can attest most people without prior exposure to philosophy will strongly endorse a number of claims and reactions to particular cases that can only be true or appropriate if one subscribes to the “ought implies can” principle. On the other hand, they’ll ultimately reject a number of other principles, judgments and the like that are entailed by ought implies can. And sometimes they don’t even know how they come down on the issue. (My students tend to tie themselves in knots over Kant’s claims about the emotions since many of them both believe that it isn’t fair to blame people for what they can’t control, but also think having certain emotional reactions, or lacking them, in some cases is clearly blameworthy.) So I think most of us know that the general public have conflicting commitments here and that’s all that the research proves as far as I can tell (I notice the phrase “implicitly” here). Moreover, plenty of figures in the history of philosophy have rejected “ought implies can.” Take Augustine, Kierkegaard or any other philosopher, committed to the doctrine of original sin. They’re pretty confident in saying that human beings are literally incapable of doing what they’re supposed to. In fact, even Kant seems to qualify his commitment to the principle in later works like the Religion. And of course there are any number of figures in contemporary philosophy who’ve challenged that principle, or the closely related control principle, in various ways like Nagel, Robert Adams, and Bernard Williams.
I’m not saying that Turri and Buckwalter’s result isn’t interesting, but it’s hardly the earth shattering revolution he acts like it is. To turn around what he says about the Gettier problem, I suppose “Entire Western intellectual tradition is wrong about ought implies can!” sounds a lot more exciting than “What everyone who’s taught undergrads suspects confirmed.” I wouldn’t go so far as to call it fake news, but it does remind me of Rachel Maddow’s “scoop” when she her hands on some old Trump tax returns.Report

John Turri
Reply to  Sam Duncan
4 years ago

Sam,

Your principal accusation here is false and easily disproven.

Here’s what I said in the interview: “ought implies can” has been “endorsed by many moral philosophers,” but “there are theoretical reasons to reject the ‘ought implies can’ principle, and some philosophers, myself included, do not find it the least bit plausible.” In the paper co-authored with Buckwalter, we note that although the principle is “widely endorsed,” there are “notable exceptions.” So I (we) *explicitly and unambiguously* deny that the “entire Western intellectual tradition” accepts the principle.

By contrast, here is an example of how philosophers describe the Gettier problem: “Since the time of Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus, a near-universally accepted analysis of the concept of knowledge, what we can call the traditional analysis of knowledge, was that knowledge was (i) justified (ii) true (iii) belief…. Edmund Gettier’s 1963 paper, ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?,’ presented a serious challenge to the traditional analysis.”

I trust that you can appreciate the difference.

On a separate note, I’d be interested in hearing more details about the patterns of inconsistency in commonsense morality, especially the claims that people “strongly endorse [about] particular cases that can only be true or appropriate if one subscribes to the “ought implies can” principle.”Report

PhilSciPhD
PhilSciPhD
4 years ago

I think he’s my hero.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
4 years ago

Mr. Turri,
I suppose I could have been more charitable, but it’s fair to say you significantly oversell both the originality and significance of your results here. You certainly don’t prove that ought implies can is revisionary; at least not in the sense that it is something that the normal run of people aren’t committed to. Rather at best you show that people aren’t consistently committed to all the implications of ought implies can. But again, that’s something that anyone who’s read Nagel and Adams or taught undergraduates already knew or at least strongly suspected. It definitely is of value to know that work like that does track the intuitions of common people, but it’s hardly a revolutionary result. The truth of the matter here is that people’s intuitions are likely in conflict, so that resolutely accepting ought implies can or rejecting it are both revisionary in the sense that either retains some common intuitions and rejects others. It’s certainly not true as you imply (but don’t quite explicitly say) that ordinary people’s pre-theoretical intuitions come down on the side of rejecting the principle as you do. I think this sort of thing also shows the serious limits of experimental philosophy. Our ordinary intuitions simply are simply inconsistent on a number of points and no amount of careful polling or psychological study is going to tell us exactly how we ought to resolve many of those inconsistencies. Most of the interesting philosophical questions to my mind are the ones where we’re strongly committed to beliefs that turn out to be incompatible.
As for the cases I have in mind: The one that tends to unsettle my students, is to imagine a new father or mother who simply finds that they don’t actually love their child or just love one child a lot more than another for no good reason. Those feelings might not be in their control, but we’d still blame them. My students with children, which is a fair number at the community college where I teach, even admit they’d blame themselves if they had those sorts of reactions. I also crib some from Adams “Involuntary Sins” like people with racist reactions they don’t endorse or left bitter or distrustful by circumstances outside their control.Report

John Turri
Reply to  Sam Duncan
4 years ago

Sam,

You say, “Our ordinary intuitions are simply inconsistent on a number of points …” Do you have any evidence for this in relation to attributions of ability and morality responsibility? Speculation about the underlying processes leading to undergraduate speech is not evidence.

I asked for examples of claims that people “strongly endorse [about] particular cases that can only be true or appropriate if one subscribes to the ‘ought implies can’ principle.” In response, you cite examples where people admit that they would blame others, or themselves, despite inability. But OIC pertains to having moral responsibilities, not blame, so there can’t be any inconsistency with respect to OIC here.

If you’re not carefully distinguishing “having moral responsibilities” from “blaming,” then I would expect students to be confused, or unsettled, or for their “intuitions” to be “in conflict.” The same research which shows that attributions of moral responsibility can be insensitive to inability also shows that attributions of blame are highly sensitive in the same context. Buckwalter and I even speculated that the intuitive appeal of OIC among some people might be due their sense that inability can be a legitimate excuse for failing a moral responsibility. Subsequent research that looked more seriously at this possibility found some evidence for it (http://bit.ly/2u7JBkq).

And, of course, there are plenty of other obvious explanations for why students might feel unsettled, conflicted, or confused about cases involving neglected children and racists.Report

Craig
Craig
4 years ago

Not to be a crank, but these ‘bombs’ sound like versions of the same ‘bombs’ that every philosopher who has a favored and wide-ranging methodology drops. (And, from a quick skim, they seem susceptible to the same sorts of responses.) I’ve heard quite similar claims from philosophers who love the sciences (especially the cognitive sciences), from philosophers who love the ordinary language stuff, even from partisans of particular characters in history. It is hard not to see everything Turri writes here as a version of, “Look, guys, experimental philosophy has something to say about things.” That’s good, and many of the things experimental philosophy says are interesting, but it seems like registering ‘bombs’ is an ordinary, philosophy way of announcement and insistence.Report

John Turri
Reply to  Craig
4 years ago

Craig,

What sort of responses are you referring to when you say “the same sorts of responses”?

Pigeon-holing approaches is beside the point. This is not about experimental philosophy specifically, and I don’t know what analogs you’re referring to in OLP or those with an interest in specific philosophers in history (a link would be appreciated). The important methodological point is that theorizing ought to be informed by relevant methods and findings from other disciplines. Perhaps for some philosophical questions, there currently are no such methods or findings. But for all the ones I discussed in the interviews, there definitely are.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
4 years ago

My point is that we normally think moral blame only makes sense if one holds that someone has failed to live up to some moral responsibility. But if it’s the case that one could not do the thing in question — i.e. feel the right emotion– then you can get pretty quickly use that to disprove ought implies can. I do spell these things out pretty carefully for my students, but I assume that readers on a site like this can fill in assumed premises a bit better than can undergraduates so I’ll spare you the long numbered premises and conclusion arguments I give them. Granted there are issues about how much we can control our emotions and just what ought implies can even means (Does it mean one’s only responsible for what one can currently do? Or that one’s responsible for current wrong actions if one has made oneself into the kind of person who in some sense can’t act otherwise?), but I’ll leave them aside. Honestly, as Nagel argues (if I remember correctly) the “ought implies can” principle is probably subordinate to a more fundamental control principle (one is only responsible for things that are in some sense in one’s control). So in all honesty I think that’s the more interesting principle than “ought implies can” at any rate.
As for evidence… I’ll take the reactions of years worth of undergraduates in a lot of different classes as at least some evidence. Granted I haven’t taken polls of them or anyone else on the issue, and I guess you could argue that only such polls would count as real evidence, but that itself would be a revisionary claim and not a terribly plausible one. After all I had a good bit of evidence that people in my hometown out in Appalachia were, as a group, pretty conservative before I ever saw any Gallup polls of the region. When I did see those polls in fact, they just confirmed what I, and anyone else, who grew up there already knew. But maybe I’m being too hasty with that last claim. It’s possible I didn’t have justified true belief about their political leanings, but only true belief, and we all know that wouldn’t count as knowledge.Report

John Turri
Reply to  Sam Duncan
4 years ago

Sam,

I really would like to see the inconsistency spelled out in the form of a numbered argument. I predict that it will either reveal no inconsistency regarding OIC, or we will have no serious evidence that people actually tend to accept the set of premises that generate the inconsistency.Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
4 years ago

Thanks for an engaging interview, John! Hopefully, it encourages epistemologists to stop perpetuating false information in our writing and teaching. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “The Analysis of Knowledge” puts it:

“Much of the twentieth-century literature on the analysis of knowledge took the JTB analysis as its starting-point. It became something of a convenient fiction to suppose that this analysis was widely accepted throughout much of the history of philosophy. In fact, however, the JTB analysis was first articulated in the twentieth century by its attackers.” https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/knowledge-analysis/Report

John Turri
Reply to  Wesley Buckwalter
4 years ago

Hope springs eternal! 🙂Report

Plato's Beard
Plato's Beard
Reply to  Wesley Buckwalter
4 years ago

“it encourages epistemologists to stop perpetuating false information in our writing and teaching.”

Are you suggesting that surveys of non-philosophers will help to correct mistaken beliefs about the history of philosophy?Report

John Turri
Reply to  Plato's Beard
4 years ago

He’s clearly not suggesting that, because “it” clearly refers to “interview,” which could not possibly be mistaken for a “survey” of any kind. And, even more obviously, the evidence for claims about the history of the discipline comes from reading contributions from its history. And, guess what: “K=JTB” is not “the traditional” view, and, as of 1963, its currency seems to have been limited to a few 20th century anglophones.Report

Plato's Beard
Plato's Beard
Reply to  John Turri
4 years ago

I see. Wesley was referring to the careful historical work discussed in the interview, not the surveys. My mistake.Report

John Turri
Reply to  Plato's Beard
4 years ago

Correct, it was discussed in summary form: “it is a lie that philosophers traditionally defined knowledge as justified true belief.”Report

Plato's Beard
Plato's Beard
Reply to  John Turri
4 years ago

Oh, good, nobody needs to look at the texts. Who knew the history of philosophy could be so easy?Report