Which Questions Can’t Philosophy Answer By Itself?


In an interview in The Undergraduate Philosophy Journal of Australasia, Thomas Spiteri asks Peter Godfrey-Smith (Sydney) about “how best to make epistemic progress” answering philosophical questions about minds and consciousness.

[Design for Xiangjiang Gate Tower by RMJM Shanghai]

Godfrey-Smith’s answer is that philosophy won’t do it alone:

Now on the broader epistemological question, I think that with the mind-body problem, and its relationship to empirical discoveries, I don’t think there’s any sort of quasi-algorithmic summary of how to get to a true picture. I think it’s going to be a process where we just build gradually, from many directions at once. We learn more about how brains work, we learn more about the psychological or cognitive role of consciousness or experience itself, and we find a way to get past philosophical roadblocks and misconceptions by sort of pressing on those in the way that philosophers do. I’m quite optimistic about the whole situation. I don’t think it’s likely that we’ll never know, that we’ll never get an answer to these questions. I think we will. But I think we’ll get the answers through a kind of building from several directions towards a picture that makes sense of all the different kinds of evidence and considerations that are relevant here.

The idea that philosophical investigation builds upon developments in other areas, particularly the sciences (which themselves may have been helped along by philosophical developments) is not so uncommon in regard to certain question in philosophy of mind.

What other questions do philosophers take up about which we should believe that philosophical progress will not be possible absent certain kinds of scientific (or social scientific) progress? (Is this one of those questions?) What practical implications does the answer to this question have for how philosophical research should proceed?

 

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Brad
8 months ago

There are a lot of really good philosophers working on issues related to scientific authorship and publication (Liam Kofi Bright, Haixin Dang, Remco Heesen, Thomas Boyer-Kassem, Cyrille Imbert, Joshua Habgood-Coote, Eugenio Petrovich, Hanne Andersen, Paul Thagard, etc. – sorry to those who I have not mentioned). Ultimately, these studies hope to contribute to the epistemology of science. They will help us answer questions like: (i) what can we expect of science?; (ii) what can we infer about what we should believe (or accept) in light of publications norms in science?; (iii) are co-authors reliable knowers, or prone to undermining trust in science?; etc. Much of this work has drawn on empirical studies of scientific publication. Indeed, it is hard to see how we could make any advances without such work – and some of the work done by sociologists of science and scientometricians.Report

Jason Brennan
8 months ago

It can’t answer any questions about justice political philosophy by itself.Report

Amaya
Amaya
Reply to  Jason Brennan
8 months ago

Hi Jason, Would you mind elaborating?Report

Robert A Gressis
Reply to  Amaya
8 months ago

Having read a fair bit of Jason’s work, I’m *pretty* sure his point is that political philosophy that is not informed by engagement with social science is basically useless (well, it may be able to tell us interesting things about distant possible worlds). I.e., political philosophy can’t answer questions about justice by itself, but instead needs help from social science.Report

Jonathan Kendrick
Jonathan Kendrick
Reply to  Jason Brennan
8 months ago

I think this is a ludicrous thing to say. Research in the social science is immensely valuable to political philosophy. Fields like economics provide the political philosopher with a rich amount of data and new tools (game theory, social choice theory, etc.) And, in many cases, I think work done in these fields can directly answer many big questions in political philosophy–e.g., is a centrally planned economy better or worse than an unplanned economy? how progressive should our tax policy be? etc.Report

Jonathan Kendrick
Jonathan Kendrick
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
8 months ago

Whoop, I misunderstood Jason’s comment. Yeah, I’m in total agreement.Report

Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
8 months ago

Are there any political philosophers working today (or in recent decades, for that matter) who write about justice without any reference to social science? (I tend to doubt it.) Of course social science in this context need not mean neoclassical economics or game theory or social choice theory.Report

Jonathan
8 months ago

There is a weird presupposition of the title question: namely, that the various resources Godfrey-Smith mentions are not properly part of philosophy itself. Incidentally, I don’t think that presupposition is implicated by what Godfrey-Smith actually says. That is, I disagree with the gloss that introduces the quoted passage in this blog post that “Godfrey-Smith’s answer is that philosophy won’t do it alone.” The fact that we make progress by pushing on a question in a lot of different ways, including by way of observation and experimentation, doesn’t say anything about whether philosophy makes that progress on its own or not.

I reject the presupposition. Lots of people who work in departments outside explicitly-labeled philosophy departments are doing philosophy professionally. Physicists, mathematicians, chemists, biologists, psychologists, linguists, economists, statisticians, computer scientists … they’re all philosophers, and their contributions to philosophical inquiry are properly part of philosophy, not somehow external to it.

Turned around: If you just mean for “external to philosophy” to track administrative disciplinary boundaries, then my answer would be that philosophy will not make non-trivial progress on *any* of its problems without external aids.Report

Patrick Lin
8 months ago

Insofar as I even understand the question:

I’d be inclined to say that philosophy can help understand and answer any kind of question (i.e., “to make progress”). But that doesn’t mean philosophy alone can fully answer the question, e.g., if it depends on empirical observations.

“Helping to answer” can also mean “ruling out wrong answers or bad hypotheses”, esp. conceptually confused or impossible ones. And this work can be done all the way up to the point when the single correct answer is finally known.

I also wouldn’t say that philosophy builds upon other disciplines, such as the sciences. Rather, it seems to be the other way around: science is a subset of philosophy that engages with empirical methods. (I know this is a contentious issue.)

Even for well-formed questions that may be unanswerable in practice (but not in principle, in case any of those exist) such as “how many birds are in flight, right this second, around the planet?” philosophy can still help. We can clarify and frame the question, e.g., what counts as a bird, what counts as being in flight (vs. jumping or falling), is the design of the experiment sound, etc.

But another way to answer the question might be: of course philosophy cannot help to answer questions we have not yet conceived. For instance, quantum physics will make some discovery in the future that we’re currently unaware of, and that discovery will lead to new questions. When that time comes, philosophy can help to make progress with those questions, but not before it (i.e., not right now). But this seems trivially true and barely worth stating…Report

T Chetir
T Chetir
Reply to  Patrick Lin
8 months ago

The full question reads: I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on how best to make epistemic progress on addressing these questions today. For instance, today, science is very much informed by computation, modelling, data collection, and simulation— in silico science. For example, when applied to consciousness and the brain, a position held by some cognitive scientists might say something like: “if we squeeze out all the complexity from the system, one eventually reaches its essence. And then and only then we can understand the brain” . So, if we extract all the data we can from the brain — track the neurons, the glial cells, everything— we can better make predictions, simulate, model, and we can therefore best understand consciousness. What are your views on an approach like this? If that shifts anything…Report

T Chetir
T Chetir
Reply to  T Chetir
8 months ago

I’m not implying it will or should, just that some further context may reframe the discussion.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Patrick Lin
8 months ago

Hang on: if philosophy needs empirical input, but if science is a subset of philosophy, can’t philosophy provide its own empirical input?Report

V. Alan White
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

Isn’t it the case that contemporary philosophy has increasingly focused on empirical input to its musings since Peirce, finally fully flying its colors in X-Phi? Not that Locke didn’t kinda kick things off there in so-called modern times if not in a full-blown way, preceded by ancients like the Stoics or even many pre-Socratic cosmologists, especially the data-driven a little later like Eratosthenes. . .Report

Ron.Warrick
Ron.Warrick
8 months ago

Philosophy answers questions? Who knew?Report

Louis deRosset
8 months ago

I have always avoided working in metaphysics of time, since it seems to me that (a) historical advances in theoretical physics seem to bear on the matter significantly; and (b) it is not entirely clear how time and temporal phenomena will be handled when and if we finally figure out what our fundamental physical theory ought to be. (Also, I am not qualified for the requisite work in philosophy of physics.) So, it seems to me likely that we should be guided for the time being by advances recognizably in physics (if we are lucky enough to have them). In this sense, I sincerely doubt that philosophy can answer the relevant questions without help from physics.Report

V. Alan White
Reply to  Louis deRosset
8 months ago

Louis (if I may) I completely agree. I have done work in the Phi/Time and though some minor progress can be made by pointing out purely conceptual mistakes like type/token equivocations and the like, if arguments do not address the physics (e.g., presentism and special relativity, which seem prima facie antagonistic, and the final resolution of conflict to my mind cannot intelligibly favor the former over the latter given data), then it is just semantic rigmarole at best.Report

Neil Levy
8 months ago

If a question can be answered by philosophy alone, it’s probably not worth answering.Report

Charles Rykken
8 months ago

I have been a student of Asian philosophy since very early in my life. The pragmatists were the only Western philosophers I could stomach. I was born in the U. S. and have lived here all my life. I have always had a dream that Goethe’s view of science might someday prevail in the scientific community but the stranglehold of scientism is still in the driver’s seat. It is true that A. N. Whitehead advocated for a process philosophy but the analytic philosophy of Russell and like minded people made every effort to purge philosophy of any detractors of the one true faith, namely analytic philosophy. A rather gross lack of self reflection has brought about the culture where a philosophy professor who taught a class on the philosophy of language which I audited told the following story (joke); philosopher Bob was sitting with his head in his hands, obviously forlorn and philosopher David asked him, “why are you so hang dog?”. Bob replied “I just realized I have wasted my life writing total bullshit”. David replied, “Oh Bob, you shouldn’t feel so bad. Everyone in the department thinks the same. “ This caused Bob to look back in horror to which David promptly says, “No not about your work, about our own”. Philosophy has degenerated from a love of wisdom to an anal fixation on bullshit. There are a few people who think of themselves as lovers of wisdom but you won’t find many of them in academic philosophy. Reality is about relationships. Objects and properties have a grotesquely limited venue of application. There is a recently (2018) published collection of essays on biology “Everything Flows a processual philosophy of biology” https://www.loc.gov/item/2019666978/ that can be a help to those with the courage to break away from the thought prison of objects and properties.Report

Henry Lara-Steidel
8 months ago

Philosophy of Education is embedded in Education Studies departments in the US, and works closely with other Ed Studies fields such as Education Psychology, History of Education, Education Policy, Education Technology, and so on. My current interests (misinformation) touch a lot on political science, communications, and psychology.Report

Timothy Sommers
8 months ago

Philosophy can’t by itself answer the question by of which questions philosophy can’t answer by itself.Report

Timothy Sommers
8 months ago

Sorry. I meant that philosophy by itself can’t answer the question of which questions philosophy can’t answer by itself.Report

sbk
sbk
5 months ago

Psychology and Neuroscience are so cloaked in ill-formed theories (their scope of prediction is “effect present/effect absent — no parametric outcomes are capable of prediction; their so-called concepts have no justifiable units [good luck with any mathematical formalization], etc.) that their contribution to any meaningful discussion of a term like “consciousness” is a conceptual dead end.Report