Convergence as Progress in Philosophy


One type of evidence that some claim is relevant to determining whether there has been progress in philosophy is whether philosophers have converged on answers to philosophical questions.

For example, David Chalmers (NYU) uses “collective convergence to the truth” as the central evidential factor in his “Why Isn’t There More Progress In Philosophy?” He defines “collective convergence on an answer over a period” as “the increase in degree of agreement on that answer from the start of the period to the end of the period.”

Has there been such convergence? Chalmers, basing his views in part on the results of the PhilPapers Survey, concludes that “there has not been large collective convergence to the truth on the big questions of philosophy.”

In a recent interview with John Horgan at Scientific American, Tim Maudlin (NYU) expresses his disagreement with Chalmers:

Overwhelmingly most philosophers are atheists or agnostics, which I take to be convergence to the truth. Most are compatibilist about free will and believe in it, which I also take to be convergence to the truth. Almost all believe in consciousness and most don’t have a clue how to explain it, which is wisdom.

He puts the popular perception that there isn’t convergence in philosophy down to an observational bias:

It is not that there isn’t convergence, it is that the outliers who do not converge get much more attention than the great mass of convergers, who don’t particularly stand out.

Maudlin thinks there has been moral progress, too:

Already in Republic… we have an argument—a clear and compelling rational argument—that even the highest political office should be open to women. The argument? List what it takes to be a good leader of the state, then note the conditions that distinguish the sexes. There just is zero overlap between the two lists. That is as compelling as a rational argument can be, and it follows that opening all political offices to women (much less acknowledging in law that women should have as much right to vote as men) is objective moral progress. Similarly for invidious legal restrictions by race. The civil rights movement was strict moral progress. That’s as true as 2 + 2 = 4.

The whole interview is here.

Josef Albers, “Formulation Articulation”


Related: “How Philosophy Makes Progress (guest post by Daniel Stoljar)“; “How Philosophy Makes Progress (guest post by Agnes Callard)“; “Why Progress is Slower in Philosophy than in Science“; “Whether Philosophical Questions Can Be Answered“; “Progress in Philosophy“; “The Intellectual Achievement of Creating Questions“; “The ‘New Questions of Philosophy’“; “We’re Going to Get More, and More Interesting, Kinds of Philosophy”; “Two Models for Expanding the Canon“; “Why Read Old Philosophy? (guest post by Katja Grace)“; “Are History’s “Greatest Philosophers” All That Great? (guest post by Gregory Lewis)“; “Lack of Philosophical Progress Owed to Procrastination, Study Hopes to Find

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Erich Hatala Matthes
Erich Hatala Matthes
2 years ago

I’ve just been teaching Michele Moody-Adams’s excellent book *Fieldwork in Familiar Places*. She has a great discussion in Chapter 3 of why convergence on a single solution is often not the proper goal of moral argument. Worth checking out!Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
2 years ago

The claim that there has been moral progress, which I’m inclined to accept, is separate from the claim that moral philosophy has made progress. This can’t be shown by pointing to concrete cases of convergence. Whatever convergence there is is not explained by philosophy. Philosophers agree on cases in which most other people agree too. Has there been progress in moral philosophy? On the foundational questions? I don’t know. On this I’m inclined to side with David Chalmers, notwithstanding Parfit’s optimistic predictions.Report

Led
Led
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
2 years ago

Nice point. In some cases philosophers have diverged both from each other and from society at large – e.g., infanticide.Report

A.
A.
2 years ago

Curious what truth agnosticism converges to…Report

Matt
Reply to  A.
2 years ago

Curious what truth agnosticism converges to…And also how it and atheism converge to the same truth.

That belief in God isn’t justified? That seems straight-forward, I’d think.Report

A.
A.
Reply to  Matt
2 years ago

I’m an agnostic, or at least I consider myself one. For me, that means I personally do not have enough evidence to either believe or disbelieve in God. But I do not got so far as to say that others are unjustified in either their belief or disbelief, for it is impossible for me to grasp all their evidence/reasons. Now, perhaps some wouldn’t consider this technically agnostic? But I bet it includes many philosophers who identify themselves this way.Report

A.
A.
Reply to  A.
2 years ago

One more thing – even if an agnostic thought belief in God isn’t reasonable, they would also presumably think disbelief is not reasonable either, so they wouldn’t be on the same page as atheists.Report

A.
A.
2 years ago

And also how it and atheism converge to the same truth.Report

Rick
Rick
2 years ago

Theism seems like a particularly dubious example, given that philosophy as a whole has “converged” on atheism and philosophy of religion has “converged” on theism. I’m not sure if there are other examples like this.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  Rick
2 years ago

If convergence is significant at all (and I’m not sure it is), it seems that we should focus on what those who specialize in the relevant issue converge on. For example, suppose that those who specialize in x mostly agree that y [where y is an issue within the field of x] but that most philosophers affirm ~y. Should we disregard what the specialists say and look at philosophy as a whole, or should we privilege what the specialists say? Seems we should do the latter. In the case of theism, this goes against Mauldin’s point. Whatever that’s worth.Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  DC
2 years ago

Unless you could explain the convergence of specialists in some other way (than the likelihood of them converging towards a true account), e.g. as a consequence of their bias with which they entered the field. For example, I think it’s plausible that believers are more interested in philosophy of religion than nonbelievers. So they probably constitute a greater share of philosophers of religion than phlosophers in general. Which could in turn explain their convergence toward theism – them finding clever arguments to justify their preacademic beliefs.

I think even Chalmers mentions this as a possible explanation somewhere, but I’m not sure. I know I read it somewhere, it’s not my original thought.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  krell_154
2 years ago

Right, and we can do the same for e.g. animal ethics: those who are moral realists and see animals are beings capable of being wronged are more interested in animal ethics, and they put forth clever arguments to justify their preacademic beliefs, etc..

Now, maybe you’re right and specialization convergence means very little. But it’s hard to see why a non-specialist convergence would matter any more. (And, again, it likely doesn’t matter.) So maybe the lesson is that convergence doesn’t matter, and is largely just a fad.Report

Smith&Jones
Smith&Jones
Reply to  DC
2 years ago

We could explain away convergence on compatibilism in a similar—though I don’t recall whether that convergence was among non-specialists or specialists. But, yeah, probably doesn’t matter.Report

Lisa Shapiro
Lisa Shapiro
2 years ago

I find it a bit peculiar that all this recent focus on progress in philosophy seems to ignore two things (a) the historical alignment of philosophy with self-knowledge (where the conception of self-knowledge does need to be fleshed out and understood, but which seems to involve both clarity in one’s thinking (ie access to reality) but also virtue) and (b) the history of such a notion of philosophical progress, which is intimately tied to 19th century efforts at canon formation, which were largely successful and have become hegemonic. I do wonder what those invested in the recent discussions about philosophical progress make of the parallel current efforts to shake up the philosophical canon. (Someone should organize a conference and get people talking with one another, though I suspect that might end in fisticuffs of some kind.)Report

Kevin Harrelson
Kevin Harrelson
Reply to  Lisa Shapiro
2 years ago

Thanks for this comment. It seems we have little notion of how to define progress in philosophy independently of canonical narratives. And for those of us – you and I, but a sizable share of colleagues also -who see the latter as relics of the nineteenth century, we thus have little hope of an alternative progressive picture. There are other ways to look at it though. Medical science had made progress, measured by statistical categories like infant mortality, life expectancy, etc. Progress defenders will have to look for another measure, if they are to believe you about the canons. I don’t see convergence as supplying that.

But I don’t understand what you mean by (a). Care to elaborate?Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
2 years ago

Convergence is something that you would see if there were a truth to be found, and if we had epistemic access to evidence for that truth. If P, then Q.

But supposing we find convergence, all we get is Q. In order to understand whether this convergence is indicative of truth, we would need a lot more. We would need to examine cases where convergence did and did not indicate truth, and look at what characteristics were confounding factors in the relationship between the two. We would need to have enough evidence to do a causal analysis.

I don’t know that we have that kind of evidence. Insofar as we do, the evidence would involve exploring cases of irrational (or arational) belief convergence — maybe studying the development of cults — and comparing this to more reliable truth-indicative cases (convergence in beliefs about biology). But even this is sketchy, since a consensus-building influence could be systematically unreliable without (say) resembling the development of a cult.Report

T
T
2 years ago

A particular quote comes to mind: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” – Upton Sinclair. Agreeing outright with concepts or people rarely gets you published in journals.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
2 years ago

So I’ve two somewhat related thoughts on this:

1. To echo some worries Arthur Greeves highlighted: Getting closer to the truth would mean consensus, but consensus might have any number of other grounds. One ground that I think particularly important on this front are sociological factors. Take the consensus toward agnosticism which so excites Maudlin. My bet is that has much more to do with sociological forces than with truth or even the power of arguments, and I don’t just say this because I’m a theist. I had a decent number of friends as an undergrad who were theists and had an interest in philosophical issues. Most of them ended up majoring in religious studies though after getting a sense that analytic philosophy as a whole wasn’t exactly sympathetic to religious belief, and the department at my undergrad institution had more theists than most. (They weren’t a majority but they were a pretty large minority.) I’ve met only met one person in my life who claimed to have been shaken out of religious belief by reading the arguments against in analytic philosophy. But I’ve met a lot who were pushed into theology/religious studies or continental philosophy by them.
2. To respond to Nicholas Delon’s post: One can pinpoint cases where philosophers contributed to moral progress. Locke’s arguments on religious freedom and basic human rights seem to be a good example. Also, one field of philosophy where there does seem to be a pretty durable consensus is bioethics and this consensus has often run in front of public opinion and, I would argue, shaped it. Now I certainly don’t think bioethicists agree on everything, but they have agreed on a basic framework. No one doubts the importance of patient autonomy, informed consent, or that professionals have some duties to treat the sick even at risk to themselves, though of course there are debates about how to apply those values. These would have been pretty alien ideas to much of the medical profession 100 or even 50 years ago and philosophers have done a good bit to shape the consensus that has made them bedrock ideals of medical ethics now. However, one interesting feature of bioethics, and one which I’d argue explains its success relative to the rest of philosophy, is that the field isn’t limited to analytic philosophers and analytic philosophers who work in it can’t get away with just speaking to other analytic philosophers. They have to assume that their audience will include theologians, continentally inclined philosophers, medical professionals, and policymakers among others. If philosophy wants to make progress then it really oughtn’t to be so insular. There’s also the fact that as a field it’s tended to set aside the foundational metaethical issues that get so much of normative ethics spinning its wheels.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Sam Duncan
2 years ago

These are good examples. Though, they don’t really bear on foundational issues—not just the metaethical ones, but also the moral-theoretic normative ones. So, I’m not sure bioethics shows there has been much progress in moral philosophy as a field. I’m also wondering if whatever convergence there has been in bioethics, arguably partly shaped by ethicists, happened to resonate with practitioners’ concerns, which philosophers formalized and fleshed out. On a number of issues within bioethics, philosophers have also largely diverged. Feminist bioethics has challenged at least two of the tenets, or at least their traditional interpretation, that you mention—autonomy and consent.

All that said, yes, there is some coincidence, perhaps some causal connection, between parts of philosophy and part of morality, but as a whole the field is far from being characterized by convergence, it seems.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
2 years ago

I would tend to agree that there hasn’t been much progress in ethics, but I think it’s precisely because of the obsession with foundational issues. And I agree that the convergence in bioethics probably has a lot to do with the role philosophers have played there where they “formalize” and “flesh out” the concerns and thoughts of practitioners in the field rather than trying to dictate to them. It seems to me that that’s not a novel idea of how to do moral philosophy. That’s at least part of what Kant and Aristotle are trying to do in their moral theories, though they sometimes step into dictating the rules. At his best it seems like that’s what Rawls is up to as well.
Honestly though, if I’m going to lay my cards on the table I suppose I’m pretty convinced that something like Kant’s transcendental idealism is true and we’re probably never going to make a whole lot of progress on the foundational issues. But if we can make progress on moral and political debates, or at least contribute to progress in those debates, I don’t think I’m too troubled by that. And of course criticizing rather dogmatic claims to knowledge on the foundational issues might itself be another pretty good task for philosophy.Report

Geoff
Geoff
2 years ago

Philosophers haven’t converged on atheism. Atheists have converged on philosophy. How many philosophers who are atheists came to be atheists on the basis of studying philosophy? My guess: relatively few (though this is open to empirical refutation). Instead, I think most philosophers who are atheists were atheists from a relatively early age and, in light of this, needed to get answers to the big questions. They couldn’t turn to any religious tradition’s answer, as most people can. For these reasons, religious people are less likely to be interested in philosophy. Why would they be, since they think they already have the answers to many of the big questions? And atheists are more likely to be interested in philosophy because they need to answer the big questions to their own satisfaction. If this hypothesis is correct, “philosophers have converged on atheism” is either misleading or straightforwardly false.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  Geoff
2 years ago

Please count me as one data point against this thesis. I came to philosophy as an enthusiastic evangelical ministerial student, but within a year and just three philosophy classes I completely abandoned religion. It was abetted by sound religion courses about the history of Judeo-Christianity that revealed (to me based on the evidence) the likely human rather than divine origin of scripture and religious traditions. That was 45 years ago, and I never once regretted it.Report

Matt
Reply to  Alan White
2 years ago

My experience was very similar to Alan’s (different details, same general idea.) I don’t think this is at all unusual among the philosophers I’ve known. At least, the general claim here seems to be not generally right – there are many counter-examples.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Geoff
2 years ago

The fact (if it is fact) that atheists are more likely to become professional philosophers than theists does not show that philosophers don’t converge on atheism, since many of the young atheists attracted to philosophy became atheists in the first place as a result of their teenage philosophizing. This is certainly true of the many of the founding giants of analytic philosophy. See my chapter on ‘Analytic Philosophy’ in the Oxford Handbook on Atheism:

‘G. E. Moore, Russell, Broad and Carnap (big names in the early history of analytic philosophy) all tell much the same tale [as Ayer’s] except that in their cases the Eucharist wasn’t the issue, and that, lacking Ayer’s rather flamboyant personality, they apparently managed to become teenage atheists without unduly annoying their schoolfellows. (See Moore, 1942: 11-1, Russell 1944: 7-8, Broad 1959: 43-44 and Carnap 1963: 7-9.) They were not moved by verificationism or by any other tenet peculiar to analytic philosophy (which in the days of their youth was either non-existent or just being invented) but by the kinds of arguments accessible to clever but philosophically untrained adolescents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thus the clincher for Russell was an argument derived from John Stuart Mill (1806- 1873), who, unbeknownst to him had consented to act as his secular godfather just a year before his death (See Reeves 2007: 478): ‘I believed in God until I was just eighteen, when I found in Mill’s Autobiography the sentence: ‘My father taught me that the question “Who made me?” cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question “Who made God?” ’ In that moment I decided that the First-Cause argument is fallacious’ (Russell 1944: 7-8).’

If you are thinking about the First Cause argument and reading Mill’s highly reflective Autobiography, you are doing philosophy though obviously not a the level that Russell was subsequently to achieve. Thus although Russell was an atheist before he embarked on the formal study of philosophy, this does remove him from the host of philosophers whose atheistic opinions suggest a convergence on this issue. And for what it’s worth it does not remove me either since I became a teenage atheist as a result of reading Russell and Cicero.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  Charles Pigden
2 years ago

“My father taught me that the question “Who made me?” cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question “Who made God?””

Yeah, Russell’s philosophy of religion is a joke, and this quote shows why (seriously, no one slightly familiar with philosophy of religion would make such a silly objections. This is Dawkins’ level stuff.). But yeah, you’re right that lots of atheist philosophers became atheists due to teenage philosophy. But other philosophers grow up out of this teenage stage, such as van Inwagen, van Fraassen, Alston, and so on. Anyway, if Russell’s teenage philosophy is driving the alleged convergence of philosophers on atheism, then this does not speak well of philosophers.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  DC
2 years ago

Behind what appears to be to some a silly question such as “Who made God?” stand some pretty serious lines of inquiry about the cosmological arguments. Independently of Bede Rundle’s thoughtful but all too-ignored book “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? I had pursued similar thoughts for many years about the explanatory parity of the empirical necessity of the first law of thermodynamics with the usual modal parse of Aquinas’ third way. The universe just is, and necessarily so (since empirical necessity of laws is at least as well grounded as speculative modal models in an explanatory way), as Aquinas et al poses for God (and I’ll remind readers that Aquinas stopped the truncation of something like logical necessity with his usual Aristotelian posit of the absurdity of infinite regress). Dismissing “Who made God?” with snaps of fingers is to just put a stop to serious inquiry.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  Alan White
2 years ago

It isn’t at all clear how your above comment renders “who made God?” a non-silly question. It is legitimate to ask why the necessary being of the cosmological argument is God (which is what you seem to be suggesting), but that is an entirely different (and non-stupid) question. Many of offered answers to this question, e.g. Alex Pruss, Josh Rasmussen, ect.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  DC
2 years ago

Reread my first sentence. It is entirely consistent with your second remark in this reply. So apparently it’s clear enough why it’s a non-silly question, if one just looks beneath the surface, even as you suggest, and I said.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  DC
2 years ago

The question “why is the necessary being God?” doesn’t follow from “who created God?” They aren’t even related. Hence my prior reply.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
2 years ago

If convergence of opinion is a sign of progress, then presumably, divergence of opinion would be a sign that we’re getting worse. But it seems implausible that divergence of opinion is a sign that we’re getting worse.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
2 years ago

I would suggest that there is indeed progress in philosophy in that true and defensible answers to philosophical questions 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?”
————————————

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? And I you find my supposition deeply objectionable you can make much the same sociological points by varying the example. Suppose moral realismisi correct. Then if philosophers converged on it expressivists and error theorists would be out of a job. Suppose expressivism is correct. Then if the philosophical community converged on it, realists and error theorsits would be out of a job. And so on. People tend not to a give up on their intellectual projects and 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

Tomi
Tomi
Reply to  Charles Pigden
2 years ago

“True and defensible” is not a strong enough criterion to reasonably expect philosophers to converge on a position. You’d need something like “true and its negation is indefensible”. Moral realism and error theory are, in my opinion, both defensible. So we shouldn’t expect convergence on either position yet – not until somebody is able to show that one position is indefensible. (In this case, I doubt that will ever happen, though the balance of considerations may point in one direction rather than another). So while I agree with you that these psychological factors exist, they don’t need to be appealed to to explain a lack of convergence on true, defensible positions – I’m not sure we should even want such convergence in the first place! We can learn a lot from taking false but defensible positions seriously.Report

George
George
2 years ago

By that logic the ecclesiastical order in Europe during certain parts of the Middle Ages was at the apex of progress, and we have been on the decline ever since the centrifugal forces of modernity teared the Christian world apart. I’m struggling to credit this argument.Report

Matt
Reply to  George
2 years ago

That’s more or less Alasdair Macintryre’s argument in _After Virtue_, isn’t it? It does seem clear that lots of people using bad methods can converge on a false outcome, so it’s necessary to have some (independent) method of evaluating methods. Probably we do have this for at least some things Maudlin discusses, but obviously much less so, if at all, for others.Report

Prof. L
Prof. L
2 years ago

There’s a lot of convergence of beliefs in totalitarian and hegemonic societies. Hooray for “progress”!Report