Whether Philosophical Questions Can Be Answered


“How do you respond to those who wonder whether philosophy questions can ever be really answered once and for all and who therefore conclude it’s a waste of time?”

That’s Richard Marshall, who has conducted around 300 detailed interviews of philosophers for 3:AM Magazine. He continues: “No matter how good an argument for a position there always seems to be the philosopher who later challenges it. Philosophical questions never seem to die. How do you defend philosophy against these skeptics?”

He puts this question to Duncan Pritchard (Edinburgh) toward the end of a recent interview about Professor Pritchard’s work in epistemology. Here’s his response:

The best way to respond is to actually solve some problems. I think I have done that. In particular, I think that my anti-luck/risk virtue epistemology really does offer a philosophically satisfying complete account of knowledge (and much more besides, such as casting light on how knowledge relates to other epistemic standings like understanding). And I think I have also solved the problem of radical scepticism, at least in one of its most influential guises anyway. Of course, a lot may hang on your phrase ‘once and for all’, as in writing the foregoing I am obviously not suggesting that debate about these topics will end as a result of my contributions! I do get e-mails from time-to-time from philosophers who have read either proposal and found it compelling as a solution to the problem in hand, but I also get far more correspondence from philosophers that is critical of my views. That’s to be expected. The point, however, is to find solutions that one finds philosophically satisfying, and to articulate them and defend them as clearly and openly as you can; you can’t do anything else beyond that.

What philosophical problems have solutions that are “philosophically satisfying”? Your examples are welcome.

Daniel Stoljar (ANU) offers some in his book, Philosophical Progress: In Defense of A Reasonable Optimism, as he discussed in a guest post here last year.

On Professor Stoljar’s view, we can roughly group philosophical questions into categories of small, big, and topic-setting. We decisively answer small philosophical questions all the time—whether, for example, philosopher so-and-so committed such-and-such fallacy in her argument. However, as Stoljar notes, such small questions are typically not what skeptics of philosophy have in mind when they, in Richard Marshall’s words, “wonder whether philosophy questions can ever be really answered.”

What are they interested in, then? Something larger. Stoljar argues that answers to larger philosophical questions have been forthcoming, too—if we’re careful about how we understand what these questions are. Important to his answer is distinguishing between big and topic-setting questions. Topic-setting questions are the questions that identify areas of inquiry, such as “What is the mind and how does it relate to the body?” or “Are we free?” or “What is justice?” These questions are sometimes trotted out by skeptics as examples of big philosophical questions that we do not have complete, settled answers to.

Stoljar argues that the fact that these questions remain unanswered doesn’t tell us much, as we can see by looking at the status of topic-setting questions in fields besides philosophy. Consider a topic-setting question in biology, like “How does the body work?” We do not have a complete and settled answer to this. In fact, it is astounding just how little we know. Do you know that it was just last year that biologists learned that our lungs play a major role in making blood? It’s not like we just discovered the lungs, people. We’ve been cutting those things up and looking at them closely for a really long time. Or consider the relatively nascent appreciation and understanding of the role that our microbiome plays in our functioning (and the questions it raises for our understanding of what kind of organism we are).

Would we take the fact that we don’t have a settled answer to the question “How does the body work?” as good evidence that there has been no progress in biology, or that there are no agreed-upon answers to big questions in biology? No. Likewise, the lack of answers to topic-setting questions in philosophy isn’t good evidence that there’s no progress in philosophy, or that there are no agreed-upon answers to big questions in philosophy.

Biologists are no longer framing their research questions about how the body works in reference to the four humors, and questions about the fruitfulness of that approach have been answered. That biologists are asking different questions now (for example) is a sign of progress. Likewise, on Stoljar’s view, we no longer frame our inquiries in certain ways because they’ve been shown to be unhelpful or based on mistakes. We’re asking better questions now, as our understanding of the problems we’re asking about develops—and that’s a sign of progress. Stoljar argues that we’ve conclusively answered Descartes’ version of the mind-body question and now grappling with better ones (again, see this post) and provides additional examples in his book.

It’s true that the mind-body problem is still with us. But so is the body problem.

Yves Klein, “Anthopometry of the Blue Period”

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Daniel Kaufman
2 years ago

I don’t think philosophical questions can be conclusively answered, and I don’t think philosophy is a waste of time. Report

Untenured Ethicist
Untenured Ethicist
2 years ago

Sometimes, on the first day of class, I give students some form of this argument.

1) The question “Do any philosophical questions have right answers?” has a right answer, and the answer is either yes or no.
2) The question “Do any philosophical questions have right answers?” is a philosophical question.
3) So the right answer to the question “Do any philosophical answers have right answers?” is yes.
4) Moreover, we know that the right answer to this question is yes.
5) So the right answer to the question “Can we know the answer to any philosophical questions?” is also yes.

It’s a juvenile argument, but the question it addresses is equally juvenile.
Report

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
Reply to  Untenured Ethicist
2 years ago

Why is the question juvenile?Report

John Fischer
John Fischer
2 years ago

Fwiw, Peter van Inwagen discusses this issue in a chapter of his book on the Problem of Evil (OUP). Neal Tognazzini and I critically assess PvI’s views, and offer our own, in our review essay in *Faith and Philosophy*. Also, it is an important idea in Robert Nozick’s *Philosophical Explanations” (Harvard U Press) that we should not expect decisive arguments in philosophy (arguments that are logically air-tight), but, rather, “philosophical explanations”–rendering an idea plausible, showing how it fits within a network of claims, etc.Report

Brian Kemple
2 years ago

The first step to solving the problems of philosophy is to solve the problem of thinking philosophy solves problems. Not every difficulty is a problem, and treating all of them as such follows from philosophy having lost its way and lapsing into the envy of ideoscopic “rigor” (which is, as Heidegger stated, attainable only because of the narrowness of its scope).

I wrote a little about this a while ago… https://semioticthomist.wordpress.com/2017/11/25/a-short-what-is-philosophy/
(It’s just a hint, though, sadly. Lack of world and time enough, and every good essay idea a coy mistress.)Report

Chris Stephens
Chris Stephens
2 years ago

I agree with Dan about philosophy not being a waste of time even if we can’t find conclusive answers, and about not getting “conclusive” answers to (at least) the big philosophical questions. (I don’t think such answers are so easy to come by in the sciences, either). But, I think we can get pretty decisive answers (as decisive as in other fields) to some parts of the big questions (how significant these answers are is a matter of dispute). Philosophers, after all, sometimes find definite counterexamples to generalizations, and sometimes they even prove things in areas such as logic, formal epistemology and philosophy of science. These proofs are sometimes just as good as those in other fields. But of course, I don’t think this sort of work exhausts what is valuable about philosophy.Report

Eddy Nahmias
Eddy Nahmias
2 years ago

I’ll make sure to solve the free will problem before I die (I’m pretty sure van Inwagen, at least, will not think I’ve succeeded).
In the meantime, my son, Sam (age 13) solved a philosophical problem at dinner last week. I presented the problem of personal identity using transporter thought experiments. Everyone (except my 10-year-old) thought it obvious that the person survives the ‘process’. I tried to make it trickier by presenting the two duplicates, original destroyed version, and then asked which of the two duplicates gets to be married to the original’s wife.
To which he replied: “Just duplicate the wife.”Report

Chris Franklin
Chris Franklin
Reply to  Eddy Nahmias
2 years ago

Sorry Eddy. I already beat you to it. See that one paper I wrote. Report

Led
Led
2 years ago

As some of the responses have already implied or indicated by the way, a good first response to this question is to ask for clarity on what would count as “answering.” Lots of philosophers claim to have answered philosophical questions. The force of the problem, if there is force to it, turns out to rely on a sense of “answer” in terms of a response’s capacity to generate disciplinary consensus: basically, the capacity to answer questions the way math and the experimental sciences do. The next step is to achieve a non-cartoonish picture of math and science and their capacity to answer some questions in consensus-generating ways. After that the question can be posed: are the only questions worth pursuing the ones we can attack in those ways? And what would justify a positive response to *that* question?

I think the question is relatively straightforward to answer if the point is to show that pursuing philosophical questions that have been around forever is not a waste of time. (That’s not to say all will find the answer compelling.) I think it is a little trickier to answer if the point is to defend, on philosophically neutral grounds, philosophy as an academic discipline. Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Led
2 years ago

Great comment, thanks a lot!

Could you just explain this part a bit more:

”I think the question is relatively straightforward to answer if the point is to show that pursuing philosophical questions that have been around forever is not a waste of time. (That’s not to say all will find the answer compelling.) I think it is a little trickier to answer if the point is to defend, on philosophically neutral grounds, philosophy as an academic discipline.”?Report

Andrew Burrell
Andrew Burrell
2 years ago

If philosophy achieved nothing of itself, it could still earn its keep as the primordial ooze from whence the special sciences emerge.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
2 years ago

Here’s my post on a similar topic that came up on Leiter.

I would suggest that there is indeed progress in philosophy in that true and defensible answers to philosophical questions (in this thread’s terminology, true and defensible solutions to philosophical problems) have sometimes been arrived at. But though such true and defensible answers often exist there is not much convergence on them
a) because the correct answers are often objectionable posing a threat to human self-importance, to ideological interests and to the self-images of many philosophers
and
b) because if the Big Questions were recognized at solved this would put a good many philosophers out of a job at least so far as their research activities were concerned.
Consider the response of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy philosophers, Majikthise and Vroomfondel, to the threat posed by the computer Deep Thought, which has been designed to answer the Question of Life, the Universe and Everything:
“We are quite definitely here as representatives of the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Thinking Persons, and we want this machine off, and we want it off now!”
“What’s the problem?” said Lunkwill.
“I’ll tell you what the problem is mate,” said Majikthise, “demarcation, that’s the problem ….You just let the machines get on with the adding up and we’ll take care of the eternal verities thank you very much. You want to check your legal position you do mate. Under law the Quest for Ultimate Truth is quite clearly the inalienable prerogative of your working thinkers. Any bloody machine goes and actually finds it and we’re straight out of a job aren’t we? I mean what’s the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?”

Let’s expand on this a bit. In my opinion the correct answer in meta-ethics is the error theory, Suppose a) that I am right about this (for some readers a big ask!) and b) that philosophers general were to converge on this result. To begin with it would be rather depressing since many people get into ethics (as I did myself) with a view to *proving* ethical conclusions of one kind or another. Clearly this project would be a generally regarded as a no-no if the error theory were widely accepted. Nobody henceforth could cast themselves in a psychological drama as the vindicators of the moral truth. And we could not consider human beings as unique among animals in having intellectual access to a set of rationally justified requirements. Realist and expressivist meta-ethicists would be out of a job as researchers, and would be reduced to gloomily teaching the histories of their past mistakes. Normative ethics need not die but it would be radically transformed from an enquiry into a kind of creative endeavor in which the object of the exercise would be to develop reasonably coherent ethical systems that sane and humane people could live with. Critical Theory (as originally conceived) would be dead since (if I understand it correctly) a critical theory of society is supposed to be a theory that is both empirically grounded and rational to believe but with ethical, and specifically emancipatory, consequences. Of course it would still be possible to develop critical theories in a slightly different sense, that is, empirical theories of society which had emancipatory consequences when *combined* with any ethical theory that a moderately humane person would be inclined to ‘adopt’ and act upon.. (Indeed, in my opinion, *Marx’s* Marxism was intended to be a critical theory in something like this second sense.) But a good many fat books by famous critical theorists would have to be discarded as deeply mistaken. Supposing then that the error theory is indeed both correct and defensible, is it any wonder that philosophers in general don’t converge on it?

Furthermore my point survives even if you reject my supposition as deeply objectionable. for you can make much the same sociological points by varying the example. People tend not to a give up on their intellectual projects and that the beliefs which bolster their livelihoods and their self-esteem unless they absolutely have to. And in philosophy such sacrifices are generally unnecessary. In science, in the end, if you get it wrong, nature tends to shout ‘No’ , though nature’s negations are often rather muffled and indirect. But in philosophy it is often possible to hang on to your pet ideas come what may without looking too obviously irrational. So although I don’t despair of progress if this means solving philosophical problems (and indeed having cogent arguments for the correct solutions) I don’t think it is very likely if ‘progress’ entails convergence. Convergence only becomes likely when a philosophical question becomes empirically tractable, but as others have noted, following Bertrand Russell, when a question becomes empirically tractable, it tends to spin off out of philosophy.Report

Brian Wong
Brian Wong
2 years ago

Are answering Philosophical questions a waste of time? For myself, it would depend upon one’s definition of “waste.”Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
2 years ago

Philosophy is maintenance work. Just like weeds will keep popping up in the garden, philosophical problems will keep popping up, no matter how diligently we try to solve them. But gardens are beautiful and worthwhile, and so is philosophy.Report

Nate S
Nate S
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
2 years ago

I like Mary Midgley’s analogy between philosophy and plumbing. Flush toilets are extremely good and worthwhile.Report

Walter Horn
2 years ago

I think the question is a little bit misplaced. There are “philosophy questions” that are answered all the time–like “What’s going on with ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’?”; or “What did Russell really mean when he said so-and-so?” Those are philosophical question (generally of interest to nobody but philosophers) that I think are regularly answered dispositively and subsequently flutter away forever.

So the first correction should be to restrict the inquiry to what Dretske and others have called “heavyweight” questions. Stuff like “What is the nature of consciousness?” “Why is there something rather than nothing?” “What constitutes virtue?”

Second, the “can” in “Can (heavyweight) philosophical questions be answered” is problematic. For non-positivists, there’s nothing absolutely prohibiting a meaningful answer. The questions aren’t nonsensical and, since they’re not empirical (at least in my view, they’re not), it doesn’t really matter that there’s a necessary incapacity of technology to answer them. So it seems to me metaphysically possible that the heavyweight questions be answered: There just needs to be one or more people to not only do answer them, but be really good at convincing a consensus of philosophers that they’ve done so.

The thing is, there’s no reason whatever to think that this will ever occur, since it’s never been close to happening for any heavyweight dispute to date. All the heavyweight questions have remained, puzzling/amusing/torturing us, since people first pondered them; and they show no indication of disappearing. (FWIW, I discuss some of this stuff a bit in a paper on epistemic closure that appeared in the January edition of JP.)

In sum, because the question above hasn’t been put too well, the answer seems to me to be “Well, Yes, and No.”Report

Walter Horn
2 years ago

I missed that categorization. Thanks.Report

Rick
Rick
2 years ago

One of the most valuable things philosophers can do, I think, is show the theoretical costs and benefits of various positions. Ultimately, I think pretty much everything comes down to fundamental intuitions, but with a bit of cleverness we can at least show where the intuitions lead, which other intuitions are compatible with them, and so forth. Rowe (allegedly) showing that a successful cosmological argument seems to follow from the principle of sufficient reason seems to me to be a nice example of this.

Merely showing what one can accept or reject, on pain of inconsistency, seems like an important contribution. And perhaps those are the “questions” that are actually being answered: can we accept PSR and reject the cosmological argument? Perhaps not. Report

Bob Kirkman
Bob Kirkman
2 years ago

I included a prominent ecologist on my dissertation committee – lo these many long years ago – who asked a similar question during my defense. He maintained that scientists have disagreements but then, through research, resolve the disagreements and move on.

He did not see the same pattern in philosophy: it seemed to him that disagreements in philosophy persisted for centuries without resolution.

“What do you do,” he asked, “when you keep having the same arguments over and over again?”

May parents were in the audience for the defense and, not missing a beat, my dad leaned over to my mom and said, “You learn to say ‘Yes, Dear!’”

I don’t remember how I answered the question, exactly, though I did uphold the possibility of progress in philosophy. Still, I think my dad won the defense. Report

Louis
2 years ago

As a non-philosopher, I would suggest that one of the tricky words here is “progress,” which means different things in different fields. I see no reason to suppose that progress in philosophy will look anything much like progress in biology, because biology is basically an experimental science, and philosophy, whatever it is exactly, is not that. I’ve always thought of philosophy pretty much as one of the humanities, and I believe most non-philosophers share that view, which means (assuming I’m right) that while some philosophers may aspire to causal explanation and firm knowledge cumulation in the mode of the natural sciences (or some wings of the “hard” or quantitative social sciences), most non-philosophers don’t expect philosophy to do that.

So I don’t see why philosophers get into a tizzy about answering questions since most people who are not philosophers don’t expect philosophers to answer questions. They expect philosophers to elucidate the complexities and the implications of questions, not to answer them.

For political scientists or sociologists, say, the situation is different. People do expect political scientists to answer questions, even though a substantial minority of them are not interested in answering questions in the commonly accepted, everyday meaning of “answer.” Which I myself happen to think is just fine, but that would be a whole other discussion. And since I’ve already deleted a paragraph from this comment because it was too long, I’ll stop here.Report

Jennifer Welchman
Jennifer Welchman
2 years ago

A problem I’d like solved is why it was so obviously correct to the interviewer that both the philosophers consulted should be male? How many interviewees would have to included before ensuring one of them was female would have seemed necessary or important I wonder? 4? 6? 10? I’m betting at least 4.Report

Rick
Rick
Reply to  Jennifer Welchman
2 years ago

I think there was only one interviewee. Report

Sikander
Sikander
2 years ago

Here’s a thought worth considering:

The total truth is too complex and multifaceted to be captured by any one theory, so we need a diversity of people with various positions/perspectives to act as ‘representatives’ of sorts for the various facets of the truth. Every philosophical theory, position, etc. has some truth and value to it, but it’s not possible to have a unified theory, so we have to have a diversity of positions that in its totality represents the truth better than a single individual could by a single position.

Philosophical problems are not going to be and are not supposed to be ‘solved’ in the sense of having a single position prevail over all the others. There needs to be an interchange between the various positions because this activity keeps people intellectually engaged, and allows the various positions to have a voice. A curious person benefits more from hearing these various perspectives than they do from hearing just one.Report

Sikander
Sikander
Reply to  Sikander
2 years ago

A related thought is that in philosophy the importance of the process relative to the importance of the result is greater than in fields such as the hard sciences.Report