Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Does pessimism marginalize the rest of philosophy?

Albert Einstein said that the definition of stupidity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same result. Can this be applied to philosophy? It seems pretty stupid in itself to even ask if philosophy could be stupid (stupidity is anathema to philosophy) - but can this be applied to the goal of philosophy? (of course this is a philosophical question, but more of a pragmatic one regarding the choice to continue the philosophical enterprise). If something doesn't work, and it continues to not work after countless attempts, should we consider giving up?

A cursory look at the history of philosophy (which is more of a history of loosely-related thinkers and groups of thinkers instead of some kind of perennial tradition) will show that it has a rather poor record of producing true statements, when truth is the goal. Countless philosophers have used the same general methods to try to come to true statements, but we never seem to be able to agree on any of them. At least from a superficial point of view, Einstein's quote would seem to apply: philosophers from all eras keep trying to answer the same damn questions and every time they fall short.

Now, Einstein's quote was probably meant more as a joke and would apply to things in which there are alternative methods of acquiring the goal. Typing incompatible code into a Python processor will not give you everything you wanted, and continuing to use the incompatible code instead of trying something new like Python will not do anything and is just stupid.

If we continue to slip up and fail to produce true statements, does that mean we ought to stop trying? Are we being foolish by expecting truth? Out of all of the previous attempts at truth, how likely is it that your attempt is going to be true? The ongoing cultural trend in (modern) philosophy has less to do with inquiring about the nature of the world and more about winning an argument, or releasing "weird" philosophy. It's more of a game than anything. The same could be said about many other academic fields (including mainstream science), but philosophy kind of stands out from what I can tell.

We can keep trying to beat the computer AI at chess on Master level - but we'll never be able to beat it. We can try to make a perpetual mechanical motion machine, but we'll never manage it. We can try to make a utopian society that will last forever - but we'll never reach that point without hurting others and it'll eventually get fucked anyway.

It does seem rather hopeless at times.

A couple of my thoughts on this:
  • Philosophy actually has produced truth in some sense, or, at the very least, constrained the possibilities within a more manageable range. It has a great track record of identifying problems. I think there are two types of philosophical questions: the interpretive and the constructive. The interpretive questions are the ones that are more likely to lead to agreement and are mostly reflective problems (pace Wittgenstein), the ones that can be revealed after an honest look at the everyday experiences of a person without bias or apprehension. They are questions whose answers don't usually stray far away from experience itself, and are the questions whose answer typically result in the feeling of "enlightenment". The constructive questions are those that start to get into the real theoretical aspects of philosophy, such as metaphysics, epistemology, etc, things that can't be immediately experienced but must be modeled. The constructive questions, like any architectural structure, will inevitably fall or be revised. Out of both of these types, the questions that are more pressing and thus require more pragmatic answers are going to result in more agreement (and collective agreement is the closest we'll ever get to real truth).
  • Philosophy is largely innocuous. That is to say, it is usually ethically innocent. Nobody usually gets seriously hurt by philosophical inquiry alone (the fallout is another issue...). If there's any reason to stop doing philosophy, ethical issues isn't one of them. Ethics is, fundamentally, a philosophical field anyway.
  • It's fun.
  • It's therapeutic (a symptom of a larger problem)
  • The biggest thing, though, is that philosophy is largely a natural thing for any person to do. We can't stop thinking philosophically. It's what we, as minded individuals, do. We think, just like we breathe and eat and shit and sleep. We might as well try to think right, or at least better.
  • If nothing more, irrational thinking has a tendency to harm other people and yourself. If you're concerned about not being an idiot and hurting other people, then philosophy, particularly the pragmatic questions, is going to be needed.
In conclusion, my view on philosophy is that, when it's not ethics or politics (the more pragmatic-oriented), or an interpretive question, we're never going to really come to truth or professional agreement. I don't share the optimism of the graduate student who thinks their new idea will be the-next-big-thing and will lead to a century of understanding, finally solving everything. Which actually makes it surprisingly difficult at times to stay involved in philosophy as a hobby - part of me is always intrigued by the constructive questions, and another part knows that we'll probably never know the answers which somewhat kills the motivation at times.

Most of us claim to be against subjectivism and relativism - and yet we're content with believing we hold the truth in spite of history.


This is especially pertinent to someone as pessimistic as myself. My love of philosophy seems almost like the "black sheep" of my worldview - humanity is doomed, we really shouldn't reproduce, politicians inevitably become corrupt, life in general is malignantly useless, whoever made the universe was either incompetent or morally questionable, but hey! philosophy! (nevermind that pessimism is philosophy...)

The thing about philosophy is that you can't half-ass it and still consider it philosophy. If you didn't try your very best, then it's probably bullshit. Even if you try your very best, it's almost certainly bullshit.

At the same time, however, to try your best requires that you have a desired end-goal in mind: in this case, it's truth.

But look at the history of philosophy. We haven't really gotten close to any constructive truth, it seems. Philosophers hold a position either because they naively think they have found the truth, or because they feel that by holding a belief, they are helping the dialectic.

And that is why it's difficult to "justify" constructive philosophy as a pessimist. If I don't have faith in humanity, why should I have faith in philosophy? If I don't really care whether or not humanity dies out, why should I care about finding the truths of reality, something that kinda needs a temporally-extended intelligent species?

At least for myself, philosophy have several uses:
  • Contrary to the established belief that metaphysics is first philosophy, I think that it is ethics that is first philosophy (pace Levinas), or an ethics-based metaphysics. You have to be alive in order to do anything else, and so we have to ask ourselves how we ought to live, or if we should live in the first place.
  • Philosophy is largely therapeutic for me, not so different from the philosophical works entitled "Meditations" by various authors. It's something to dissolve issues with, and to most importantly pass the time. It's something to think about on the train, or at work, or while you're falling asleep. 
  • I'm a pessimist in terms of structure but an optimist in terms of the human spirit and drive. We need only to temper this human spirit when it is ethically problematic.
  • As said before, philosophy is largely ethically innocent. So the drive for truth is not that problematic in the way the reproduction of the species is. Now, the transcendent drive for truth is partly dependent upon the continuation of a species that can do this drive. In which case, something like philosophy is not a justification for the continuation of the species, but merely a result of it. However, what is justified is a personal drive for truth. I can do whatever the hell I want so long as I don't seriously impact anyone negatively. In a sort of twisted manner, I can leech off of the surrounding reproductive insanity without condoning it. I can be a part of society without approving of it. I can watch Game of Thrones, take a walk in a public park, and read philosophy without explicitly approving of the underlying structure. Such will be a post for the future - how to live negatively in an affirmative society.
  • I like philosophy as a challenge more than I like it out of a wish to come to truth. Coming to truth is more of a byproduct of my enjoyment of it as a challenge, just like a rock climber may just enjoy rock climbing in general and not necessarily or solely the final push to the top.


  1. "As said before, philosophy is largely ethically innocent"

    Would you grant that religious dogmatism was the product of humans' earliest attempts at philosophy? If so, getting philosophical questions dead-wrong doesn't seem so innocuous. Can bad effects so easily be written off as 'fallout' of philosophy, distinct from philosophic engagement? I'm not sure there's a line in the sand there. Especially when most humans -- philosophers or not -- find it so hard to refrain from motivated reasoning in both scholarly and everyday life.

    On a different note, here's a post full of data arguing that much of conventional academic philosophy deserves to be marginalized:

    Luke writes: "But the signal-to-noise ratio is much lower even in naturalistic philosophy than it is in, say, behavioral economics or cognitive neuroscience or artificial intelligence or statistics."

    I'm inclined to agree. So much attentional energy has been wasted on semantics.

    1. You have to keep in mind that organized religions, in the past at least, were centers of intellectualism. We owe a great deal to the thinkers of the past. Our modern liberal values, for example, were largely argued for by Christian thinkers - hence why Nietzsche saw the importance of creating new values after the death of God. Without God, our values have little to back them up other than heritage and habit. Which is why the new atheism movement is morally bankrupt - it steals the values from the very thing it's (poorly) trying to criticize.

      In regards to the LessWrong link: LW is kind of hit or miss. I agree with them that post-modernism and (SOME) of the Continental philosophy is obscure and esoteric, although Husserl, Heidegger, and co. are legit. You also have to keep in mind that Continental philosophy has largely been anti-realist in nature: it focuses on phenomenology, not realist metaphysics. In fact one of Heidegger's goals was to "get rid" or "overcome" metaphysics, the same goal that Carnap had in his logical empiricism.

      Part of the nature of philosophy is trying to disentangle ourselves from the surrounding confusion. It's not really valid to compare philosopher's efforts to the efforts of mainstream scientists, since they're studying different things. The mainstream scientist wouldn't be able to do any better than the philosopher is and would fall prey to the same things that philosophers are purported to.

      I agree with what Charles Pierce (scientist-philosopher-logician) had to say about metaphysics: it's not the field that is problematic, but the practitioners.

      So we need a rigorous and systematic approach to philosophy, one that I believe needs to be pragmatic and coherentist in nature.

      As of today, naturalistic tendencies are rising. There is considerable doubt concerning our intuitions, our theoretical virtues (which also affects scientific theories, not just philosophical), and the general methodology of philosophy, and philosophers actually largely accept this. The whole purpose of the rising tide in interest in meta-ontology, meta-metaphysics, meta-epistemology and meta-philosophy (meta-etc...) is to examine the theoretical bases for our inquiries as to make sure we're not wasting our time chasing dead-ends.

      There's also a selection bias going on here: those who are realists about "x" tend to be the ones most associated with "x". You don't see deflationary theorists or anti-realists consistently talking about "x". And yet, as Chalmers said, there's a "silent majority" that does not accept what the realists claim.

      And so LW seems to totally ignore the vast majority of philosophers who are skeptical of metaphysics, who are skeptical of science-independent epistemology, and who are skeptical of theology.

      Another thing is that LW here seems to already have a metaphysical structure that they take as correct. The vast majority of people who criticize philosophy don't even realize that they hold rudimentary philosophical assumptions (as Peirce pointed out). They're usually scientific realists without justification, or empiricists without the necessary epistemology, or they think the answers to these questions are "obvious", or believe it's "obvious" that these questions are linguistic games, etc, without realizing that this has ALL been said before countless times in the past by philosophers themselves. Philosophers have a knack for criticizing their own field.

    2. (cont)

      So this LW essay comes across as a rant against philosophy for not being as productive as science, and this misconstrues the data of philosophy. If science had as little coherent data as philosophy does, it wouldn't perform as well either. It's like accusing the paleontologist for not figuring out what the color of the dinosaur's skin is - the paleontologist doesn't have enough data to even come close to an educated guess. And so the philosopher has very little actual empirical data to go off of, and has to make use of what he's got.

      Some people might lose patience with the lack of philosophical progress: but this is a personal issue, not an issue with philosophy itself, unless of course this person can show how these problems are pseudo-problems (as Carnap and co. tried to do), or suggest a different methodology (as Peirce and co. tried to do and what is currently happening today in much gusto).

      And so any argument that proposes that philosophy at large ought to be marginalized is dependent upon an expectation of results (as realist science seems to produce), or a pragmatic use of philosophy. All of which are personal reasons, unless they wish to argue that philosophy ought to receive less funding for economic reasons.

      So in general the LW essay came across as a cherry-picking rant with an agenda to fulfill. It's ridiculous to claim that the average philosopher does not know what an atom is. To top it off, the poster mentions Dennett as a top-notch philosopher; and in my opinion Dennett is highly over-rated and his views collapse under further inquiry.

    3. "Which is why the new atheism movement is morally bankrupt - it steals the values from the very thing it's (poorly) trying to criticize"

      Yeah, you're way off-base here. The arguments attributed to "New Atheism" are mostly a repackaging of early 20th Century Russell-style anti-theism. Accommodationists are quick to point out that they have little-to-no issues with Russell's critiques of monotheistic religions, but then arbitrarily write off modern anti-theists like Harris or Dawkins... even though if you look at the specific arguments of then and now, they largely overlap. Credit goes to hacks writing for outlets like Salon, I guess.

      " steals the values from the very thing..."

      No, it really doesn't. Not anymore than you're "stealing" by maintaining general AN convictions despite criticizing the Benatarian asymmetry which resurrected the anti-natalism of today.

      This applies to anti-theism aptly targeting specific features of specific faiths. For instance, Jainism predates everything "New Atheists" habitually criticize. Oddly enough, they have nothing negative to say regarding hardcore altruistic Jainist values. From wiki: "There is evidence to show that so far back as the first century B.C. there were people who were worshipping Ṛṣabhadeva, the first tīrthaṅkara. There is no doubt that Jainism prevailed even before Vardhamāna or Pārśvanātha. The Yajurveda mentions the name of three Tīrthaṅkaras-Ṛṣabha, Ajitnātha and Ariṣṭanemi. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa endorses the view that Ṛṣabha was the founder of Jainism. Further, he believed that Jainism was much older than Hinduism"

      Don't buy into the distortions of hack journalists who'd have you believe that we'd still be stuck with Master Morality had it not been for The Golden Rule (which kinda sucks anyway, and is trumped by The Silver Rule or The Platinum Rule).

      More importantly though, Harris is a consequentialist. Consequentialism is generally considered an anathema in monotheistic theological circles. Are you suggesting that archaic critiques of "Master Morality" result in theologians getting to "call dibs" on welfare consequentialism... even though they themselves are overwhelmingly non-consequentialists? Divine Command Theory was the dominant view thanks to Christian strangleholds on the state. This was Slave Morality, yet it did far more harm than good compared to what secular ethics would've accomplished had power dynamics allowed it to be implemented.

      But let's just pretend that challenging Master Morality would've been incomprehensible worldwide had it not been for the influence of Christian mythology. How is this a moral gotcha? It's no different than engaging in a mathematical gotcha by saying "If you're gonna criticize Islamic doctrine, you better be prepared to give up on Algebra".

      Hitler was a vegetarian. But imagine a world where Hitler *invented* vegetarianism. My oh my, pity the modern vegetarian who wants to criticize all those bad features of Nazi ideology without engaging in pretzel-logic to maintain his vegetarianism.

      Something tells me you'd see differently.

    4. We can still keep the morality of the past, but we'll need to find a justification for doing so. Schopenhauer pointed out that morality largely comes from compassion and empathy - there's a starting point.

      Our modern liberal values are not entirely secular. It is a genealogical relationship that was shown by Nietzsche. You get rid of the religious aspect of these values, and these values no longer have much to hold them up. Our intuitions about what is moral and what is immoral comes from a social meme, centuries old in the making. That's why Nietzsche was so obsessed with finding new values after the death of God. He predicted that the loss of God would result in rampant consumerism and materialism; exactly what we're seeing today.

      So it's not just that the early Christian churches came up with these morals, it's more like these morals are inherently dependent upon a certain belief system. Your analogy to Hitler's vegetarianism does not work, then. To make it work you would have to claim that vegetarianism somehow depends upon Nazism - if we get rid of Nazism, we kinda have to get rid of vegetarianism. Vegetarianism would have intrinsic ties to Nazism.

      The same thing can be seen in my own AN while rejecting Benatarian AN. AN does not depend on Benatar's arguments, and so I can be an AN without being a Benatarian.

      But he same thing applies to modern liberal values. You get rid of the religious aspect, and these values have no basis (unlike the vegetarianism or AN examples). They're arbitrary. And so we need to find new values, or find a way of justifying the values we currently have without appeals to religion.

      New Atheism criticizes (and succeeds in doing so imo) the personalist gods of folk religion, especially Protestantism, of the kind defended by theistic personalists like WLC and Plantinga and your neighbor down the street.

      But there's another kind of theism, that's rather close to deism, that was advocated by Aristotle, Aquinas, Plotinus, Augustine, and the like. This kind of theism isn't some "sky daddy" theism, it's far more philosophically rigorous. It doesn't require mythology, it doesn't require faith, and, in my opinion, logically leads to a belief in a malevolent or careless deity. Although I do think atheism or agnosticism is a better position.

      It would be quite narrow minded to say that new atheism is actually a philosophical movement, not to mention that it would do a disservice to anyone who is actually doing philosophy legit. It's a social movement aimed at secularization and the denouncement of organized religion. The arguments used work well against folk conceptions of god but are utterly shallow when put against the more rigorous arguments presented by Aristotle and Aquinas and co. The Euthyphro dilemma doesn't hold water, the god-of-the-gaps argument misses the point, the general scientism is demonstrably false, the shallow versions of the argument from evil are just that: shallow, "where did god from?1!" argument misses the point, and most importantly values outside of basic hedonism (of which was present in the earliest of greek (and jainist) writings) are arbitrary and un-grounded without a supplement to support them. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's definitely not as easy as everyone seems to make it seem. Jainism itself is a religion, and its values have connections to its religious tenets.

      It's at this point that this becomes less philosophy and more history (a la Nietzsche). There's a reason Nietzsche was so troubled by this, and it wasn't just because we'd be lonely without a comforting sky daddy.

    5. "All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether." -Dalai Lama

      Emphasis on the "finding a way" - it's not self-evident what our values should be apart from pleasure and pain. If we get rid of religion, we end up supplementing the absence with something else, like nationalism, consumerism, pop culture, etc, jumping from one quasi-religious notion to the next. The goal of Nietzsche was to try to find some kind of value that wasn't inherently illusory or religious.

      Perhaps that's why I continue to lean towards basic hedonistic values. All other values are a fake.

    6. Also, Nietzsche was anti-realist to the core. So his criticism is likely not going to be as profound to you (an anti-realist) as it would be for someone who is a realist about morals. Naturalistic moral realism is highly implausible. And so our values have to come from the individual, and I try to adhere to this in my own posts.

      For example, antinatalism would have no place in an organized religion such as Catholicism. But as soon as you get rid of God, you get rid of the values associated with the belief system, including the value of procreation. Without guiding religious principles to tell you that procreation is admissible (or even expected), you're in moral bankruptcy. Which is exactly what is happening today in modern liberal countries, when they continue to accept that birth is entirely acceptable and something to be cherished when there's nothing to back this up.

  2. "If we get rid of religion, we end up supplementing the absence with something else, like nationalism, consumerism, pop culture"

    Oh fuck me sideways. Not the "swap one religion with another quasi-religion" storytelling. Funny how the three replacements you mention have always been more potent in a fervently religious country like America whose population has been god-fearing since day one.

    Exceptionalism on roids, far higher consumer rates compared to other developed nations, and the motherland of MTV. Compare that with the largely irreligious Northern Europe. Evaluate their lifestyles, especially in the 20th century, and you'll find no "swaps" in sight. The same can be said for Canada.

    Nietzsche was a drama-queen.

    Unless you're in hostile conversational territory, there's no need for robust realism in ethics:

    And if you *do* find yourself in hostile territory, take Simon Blackburn's quasi-realist approach and act "as if" realism is true, just as one would do when it comes to downplaying determinism in a region where free will belief is rampant and necessary for prosocial behavior.

    "Our intuitions about what is moral and what is immoral comes from a social meme, centuries old in the making"

    The inputs from a far lengthier hunter-gatherer period greatly outweigh these past few centuries of divine revelation based memes. You can't argue with a straight face that all the brutalist baggage of scripture have been compensated for with a few nods to altruism.

    With religion came notions of religious identity; a new toy for humans to play with, and with this came religious tribalism and the fortification of in-group/out-group mindsets. Had it not been for these setbacks, our modern mainstream secular ethics would be so much more advanced, we'd be at a point where the fringe secular ethics discussed by us and ethicists like David Pearce would be getting major network airwaves coverage.

    "Your analogy to Hitler's vegetarianism does not work, then. To make it work you would have to claim that vegetarianism somehow depends upon Nazism."

    Quoting myself: "But imagine a world where Hitler *invented* vegetarianism."

    Key word being "imagine". Try absorbing what I actually propose instead of rushing to respond. In this case, you countered a real-world non-analogy made analogous through deliberate ahistorical tinkering on my part (for illustrative purposes) by pointing out that it's a non-analogy in the real-world. Thanks for that. The point was, in a hypothetical world where Nazism births vegetarianism, it would still be absurd to tell any ethical vegetarian to drop it simply because its origins are entangled with Nazism. Or to go so far as to claim that an anti-Nazi "New Ethnic Colorblindness" movement is morally bankrupt because it steals one or two (vegetarian) values from the very thing it's (poorly) trying to criticize.

    It's just as nonsensical to tell anti-theists who are welfare consequentialists that their anti-theism leaves them in limbo because a feature of Christianity bolstered altruism in parts untouched by alternatives like Jainism. It reminds me of the sort of weasel move Karen Armstrong types pull, and it's played out.

    1. Even if Hitler invented vegetarianism, this wouldn't put vegetarianism under fire because its internal coherency wouldn't be threatened by external forces, such as Nazism.

      Like I said before, the dissolution of religiousness leads to a disenchantment with the world a subsequent loss of many of our values. Again, we can find a justification for these values - it's not as if these values are only legitimate under a religious scheme. However it would be too quick to say that as soon as we drop religion, we can just keep going as if nothing happened. We would need to find either new values, or a way to justify the values we do have, since these values are not by-themselves independently valuable but require some kind of structure behind them for their legitimacy.

      And like I said before, pleasure and pain are the most acute and obvious values, so much so that religion has very little sway over it. In fact religions tried to create a mythology surrounding these experiences, and it's so ingrained that we have to "re-write" our values.

      So of course welfare consequentialist like you and I (especially being anti-realists) are not really going to be touched by the absence of religion, since we base our decisions upon the various pleasures and pains that people experience that composes their wellfare.

      However, other values, like the value of birth, immediately are put under fire as soon as religion goes away. What justification is there for birth? What justification is there for a "just" war? What justification is there for natural rights (a la Hobbes and Locke which Bentham severely criticized as being shallow)? What justification is there for placing man in front of animals? What justification do we have to abuse and slaughter animals (pace the Bible)? What justification do we have to continue to exist in the first place?

      That's why I mentioned consumerism and materialism - they're distractions meant to keep up from having to answer these questions. Consumerism and materialism was always there (and often looked down upon by religions) - but they were held in check by the idealism of religion. With religion gone, there's nothing holding them back. They exist for the same reason religion does - to distract us.

      Some of these values, I think, can be recovered. Others, such as birth or anthropocentrism, cannot and should not. But the transition between religious values and secular values is tough and requires us to let go of our prior beliefs - just imagine what would happen if you told someone you were against birth. Why would they look at you weird? Partly because it's human nature to want children, but also because they are surrounded by a culture that elevates birth. A culture and its values that are directly descended from religious societies.

      The overall point being made here is that our values (outside of the most rudimentary pleasure/pain values) are like a monitor hooked up to a computer. Without the computer, the monitor can't do anything. The monitor is analogous to these aforementioned values, and the computer is the historic structure these values depended upon. Without the proper context, there's no justification for holding any of these values, UNLESS we find a new computer or throw the monitor out entirely (or both).

      It's this naivety of modern liberalism that leads it to believe that it can keep progressing while its structure is rotting from the inside. Conservatives are largely backwards and desperately clinging for an age long gone, while liberals haven't figured out that what they continue to hold as valuable is hardly compatible with the current underlying belief structure. It's why birth is still touted around by progressives as something beautiful, or why liberals believe in progress for the sake of progress. It's blind and ignorant, and most of all harmful.

    2. Additionally, since I ran out of space, the article you mentioned says exactly what I previously had said about Nietzsche - we create our own values, from the inside, from the personal, not because someone told us what is valuable.

      And either way, moral nihilism has very little ground over normative debates. You still have to make decision regardless of whether or not morality is real. And it's worth discussing what these decisions will be.