Thursday, July 2, 2015

Anti-naturalism in philosophy (I)

[Revised version]

To each his own. It is not for me to adjudicate on other people's activities – so long as they are not harmful or wasteful of public resources.

In these respects, academic philosophy occupies a grey area. It is dependent on public funds, though its requirements are relatively modest compared to some other disciplines. And it can be used (and often is) as a vehicle for promoting certain metaphysical, religious or ideological views, activities which will generally be seen as good by those who share the perspectives in question but harmful by others.

I have been following up recently on certain philosophical thinkers and trying to assess whether or not my initial judgements about the worthwhileness of their work were justified. (Of course, it's not just individual thinkers I am concerned with but also with the discipline.)

There are two issues here which need to be distinguished: worthwhileness (which relates to the wastefulness question raised in the first paragraph), and the issue of using the platform provided by a teaching position in academic philosophy to promote an ideologically-motivated agenda. The latter, I believe, is inappropriate and unprofessional and betrays the trust which society places in its publicly-funded or subsidized teachers. I will ignore here the most common (and objectionable) kind of bias – involving the promotion of partisan political views – and focus on the more subtle question of general metaphysical and religious attitudes.

I have to say that philosophy as it has generally been practised over recent decades does not look attractive to me: the general philosophical culture has been just too hostile to what is seen as 'scientism', and I have felt that the few who shared my views and who participated in the philosophical culture were only serving to give it unwarranted credibility (as token figures, perhaps).

Moreover, I can't imagine that Patricia Churchland's career path, for example, or even that of Daniel Dennett would be possible today. They learned their science along the way, more or less informally. Things are changing, especially with the advent of younger thinkers (such as the neo-empiricist Jesse Prinz or Edouard Machery) who are breaking down the barriers – and blurring the distinction – between philosophy and science.

But amongst those still committed to their discipline as independent and autonomous I am coming across more and more philosophers with a religious agenda. Even many apparently atheistic philosophers seem to be critical of naturalism. I just can't make sense of this except as a quasi-religious or (in some sense) ideological position. It may be that such a position is a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for seeing philosophy as an autonomous and coherent academic discipline.

Note that both figures in the video debate embedded below share an anti-naturalistic outlook (though Timothy Williamson equivocates somewhat on this question). Note also the dramatic way Williamson sets up the debate – claiming that what Paul Horwich is saying, in effect, is that philosophy as normally practised is essentially just rubbish. Most academic philosophers spend their time addressing pseudo-problems while others spend their time pointing this out. On this reckoning, we should just pull the plug on the whole enterprise.

Williamson is an apparently skeptical but metaphysically-inclined logician. I respect his formal logical expertise but not his judgement in applying formal logical methods to theoretical and metaphysical questions. This general tradition of thinking, which owes not a little to Saul Kripke's work, has always struck me (I may be wrong) as profoundly misguided when it moves in a metaphysical direction, though it does have useful applications in semantics and other areas. I suspect that much of it – to the extent that it is not just game-playing – is ultimately motivated by a desire to undermine a naturalistic (or to develop a non-naturalistic) view of the world. Kripke, for example, has strong religious beliefs, and the orientation of his theoretical work is arguably related to these. It is no secret that many of today's logicians and philosophers (religiously inclined or not) are antagonistic to science.

The philosophy of language (so-called) seems to be more firmly rooted in 19th-century metaphysics than in modern linguistics. Furthermore, Wittgenstein's and other philosophers' compelling insights into what natural language is, how it works and how it can lead us astray seem to have been ignored or forgotten (except by the likes of Horwich, definitely in a minority these days).

Formal languages and approaches are valuable for their practical applications and for what they can teach us both about the nature of natural language and about thinking. But, like ordinary-language-based approaches, they can be deployed in very unproductive ways.

I will look more closely at what Williamson and Horwich are saying in my next post.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Quietism; Wittgenstein

This site was originally conceived as an ideology-free zone. Impossible, of course, for a blog which consists largely of opinion pieces (even if they are mostly on science- and philosophy-related topics).

Partisan politics free? Yes, that's quite easy to do, especially since political views are not directly relevant to most of the topics discussed here anyway.

But ideology is inescapable. Understood as a culturally-generated framework of purposes, facts and values which is adopted – and adapted – by individuals more or less voluntarily and more or less consciously, it pervades and motivates virtually all culturally-significant human activity.

For a while there I had been thinking about collapsing my two blogs into a single new site with a new title, shorter and sharper than 'Language, Life and Logic' but not suggestive (like 'Conservative tendency') of a particular political orientation. The latter is a strong title but could (my thinking went) be a liability, especially if it were my sole site and I wanted to focus on more science-oriented topics.

I have been posting at this site mainly pieces on language or the philosophy of mathematics or other more or less philosophical topics: relatively dry stuff, but ideological nonetheless a lot of the time. In fact, the generally deflationist, anti-metaphysical and quietistic orientation on display here might even be characterized – though not in a specifically political sense – as conservative.

Quietism has, after all, a distinct conservative (albeit anti-libertarian) flavour. It is all about respecting the power and efficacy of what is beyond the individual.

In religion (where the term had its origin) it was a borderline-heretical mystical movement within French and Spanish Catholicism which advocated a kind of willing surrender of one's will to an all-powerful deity.

These days, however, quietism usually refers to a political orientation characterized by skepticism about social activism, etc.; or to a position in the philosophy of language characterized by the rejection of a reformist approach to natural language.

The later Wittgenstein is often referred to as a quietist as he saw philosophical problems as arising not from the deficiencies but rather from the misuse of natural language. If language is seen as deficient, then some kind of revisionism seems called for – let's fix it (or replace it with something better). But Wittgenstein sought, as he put it, to leave everything as it was.

Arguably, this quietistic streak carried over into other areas of his life. Though he was deeply influenced by Tolstoy's radical views and had left-wing connections and friends (e.g. his colleague, the economist Piero Sraffa), Wittgenstein's radicalism was more moral than political. He was not (so far as I know) politically active, and he remained conservative in many ways. He was certainly a cultural conservative.

Let me make it clear that I am not endorsing Wittgenstein's view of the world – and certainly not his religious leanings or his curiously negative attitude to science.

All I am suggesting here is that there is a degree of overlap between (different forms of) quietism and (different forms of) conservatism, and that the case of Wittgenstein may be seen to illustrate this to some extent.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Egos, ideology and science

Massimo Pigliucci has caused another stir by further distancing himself from the skeptic and atheist groups within which he originally came to public prominence, and by renewing his criticisms of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins in particular.

The trigger for his recent article was the publication of an initially private exchange on a political matter between Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky. Pigliucci criticizes Harris's behaviour (not without some justification) and sees it as typical of the so-called 'new atheists' who, in his eyes, are no longer serious intellectuals but rather publicity-seeking cult leaders. Or that's the general gist of it.

This whole business is confusing and not very edifying: the issues are obscured by personal sniping and perceived snubs, etc. It seems, for example, that one of the main targets of Pigliucci's wrath, Richard Dawkins, has not only been publicly dismissive of Pigliucci but also rude to him in person!

All this squabbling wouldn't matter but for one thing. At the heart of most of these disputes are important ideological and scientific questions -- and mixing the two is a recipe for disaster.

For example, Dawkins and Pigliucci are on the opposite sides of a debate about evolutionary theory: Pigliucci is firmly on the side of those who are committed to a so-called 'extended synthesis' -- basically replacing the neo-Darwinian modern synthesis with a much less gene-centred model. But the whole debate seems to be ideologically driven (as indeed it has been for decades, at least since the heyday of Stephen Jay Gould).

In my only published comment on Massimo's recent piece, I spoke in general terms about my concerns and made a reference to Chomsky (whom Massimo clearly sees as a role model, at least in terms of his politics).

I wrote (in part):

"... It's always a pity when partisan politics gets mixed up with science. (The science inevitably gets compromised.)

And it's also a pity when partisan politics-talk gets mixed up with science-talk. It can be great fun, of course -- reassuring, ego-boosting, etc... But unfortunately confusion tends to reign and this sort of discourse is not worth a lot in the scheme of things.

Chomsky is unusual (and admirable) in this respect: he maintains two distinct public personas and (unlike a lot of linguists, social scientists, etc.) keeps his politics quite separate from his work in linguistics. No hidden or half-hidden political agenda as far as I can see in his scientific work. (The universalist assumptions are upfront and not implausible.) Moreover, if you go to a Chomsky lecture -- or read an article by him -- on a linguistic topic, you're not likely to encounter any gratuitous political asides."

Friday, February 6, 2015

On semi-hidden agendas and the misuse of Gödel's theorems

An old friend of mine, a philosophy PhD with a background in literature and theology, told me that it was the work of Kurt Gödel which had drawn her to philosophy. She, like many others (including myself at one stage), saw his famous theorems as vindicating a non-reductionist and perhaps even religious view of the world.

I don't think this view is correct. A mythic narrative has been built up around Gödel's work which needs to be treated with great skepticism. Certainly his work could be seen to have decisively undermined one aspect of the so-called Hilbert program, but what reason was there to think it likely that a formalized version of arithmetic could be complete or have the necessary resources to prove itself consistent in the first place? And why does this matter so much anyway (except perhaps to mathematicians who might have been seeking a certain kind of certainty or security or self-containedness for (fundamental parts of) their discipline)?

I concede that there are many deep and interesting questions which work by Gödel and others (Turing, Church, Post, et al.) opens up in metamathematics, computer science and other areas. But I question its relevance (or at least its direct applicability) to general human questions.

I say these things to give a sense of my general stance and it is not my intention here to elaborate or defend a comprehensive point of view. Rather, I just want to sketch out my reaction to some posts at Scientia Salon by Marko Vojinovic whose PhD is in theoretical physics but whose interests appear to be largely philosophical. In January a two-part essay of his appeared which uses Gödel's work in what I see as an inappropriate way. [Part I here and Part II here].

Initially I was going to write a more harshly anti-Vojinovic piece but, rereading the pieces and some comments and responses I have tempered my original views somewhat. On a personal level, I think I would like Vojinovic. He writes well and engages readily with his critics, often in a disarming way. He is clearly intelligent and knowledgeable and interested in interesting things.

Nonetheless it remains crystal clear that he has a (not particularly hidden) agenda. In fact his contributions to SciSal (including comments on posts by others) could be seen to provide (further) evidence in support of points I have made in the past about (sometimes hidden) ideological or religious agendas lying behind much philosophical discourse.

The basic pattern is a common one. One has a fundamental view of how things are which one has arrived at for unknown, obscure or unknowable reasons, and one deploys one's intellect and knowledge of science, maths, logic, etc. (i.e. one's expertise) to make a case for or defend the plausibility of one's intuitively held views.

On one level, this sounds fine. And it is fine. Conjectures and refutations. Popper et al.. We can't escape it. Much of science and philosophy and ordinary argument is like this, and that's okay.

But there's a continuum involved (or a multitude of personal continua). My point is that if religion and maybe some other kinds of ideological commitment are too strongly involved the whole process becomes problematic.

Certain aspects of my own personal history give me an insight into these issues. I used to be religious and, just like Duhem (a classic case if ever there was one), I felt that I had an epistemic head start on others because I knew that the true theories of science etc. had to be compatible with my beliefs and, plainly, many popular theories and interpretations were not. Moreover, I was strongly motivated to argue my case (for obvious reasons). I even saw a career in academia (in philosophy, for example) as a possible way of promoting these ideas (and doing good, because the ideas were good and true).

When you are getting too close to the apologetics end of the continuum, expertise is deployed merely to serve the argument. And, as every high-school debater knows, any intelligent person can make a plausible-seeming case for any half-plausible proposition. In the light of these facts and, given the overwhelming amount of stuff out there which might call for our attention, lines just have to be drawn.

It's a personal thing, where one draws the line. I would exclude Pierre Duhem but include Popper (say) – despite the latter's belief in an essential truth underlying religion and his commitment to (something very like) Cartesian dualism – in my personal list of thinkers worth reading for not purely historical reasons.

So where does Marko Vojinovic's work lie on this continuum which runs from careful, exploratory argument to polemics and apologetics? His writing (at least at Scientia Salon) tends to the latter end of the spectrum, I would say. The essays are certainly tendentious.

In a September article at SciSal, he argued against determinism but his argument relied on so many contested assumptions that, even if his reasoning was valid, the soundness of the argument was far from assured. Vojinovic also claimed somewhat surprisingly – and very revealingly – that his conclusions "open[ed] the door for the compatibility between the laws of physics on one side, and a whole plethora of concepts like free will, strong emergence, qualia, even religion – on the other. But these are all topics for some other articles..."

Then, early in January, the two-part essay on reductionism and emergence appeared, with even more extravagant claims in the final paragraph, claims which one sympathetic commenter interpreted as "a tactical error".

Here is the final paragraph in its entirety:

"Giving up the idea of reductionism essentially amounts to accepting strong emergence as a fundamental property of Nature — a physical system might display behavior that is more than the behavior of the sum of its parts. Proponents of reductionism might find this at odds with their favorite ideology (physicalism, naturalism, atheism, etc.), but there are actual examples of strong emergence in Nature, the arrow of time being the most prominent one. It would be interesting to see how many people would actually agree to change their minds when faced with this kind of approach, as giving up reductionism generally weakens the arguments that a physicalist may have against dualism, a naturalist against the supernatural, an atheist against religion, etc. Philosophy teaches one to keep an open mind, while science teaches one to appreciate the seriousness of experimental evidence. When these two combine to demonstrate that certain parts of a physicalist/naturalist/atheist belief system are just unfounded prejudices, even downright wrong, it would be interesting to see how many people will actually give them up. After all, these are precisely the people who boast about both open-mindedness and the scientific method, and invoke them to criticize dualists/supernaturalists/theists. Now they are challenged with giving up one of their cherished beliefs, and I would like to see how truly open-minded and scientific they can be in such a situation."

Overall it seems clear that Vojinovic's philosophico-religious preoccupations have led him to deploy some very idiosyncratic definitions of key words and to make false (or at least very misleading) claims, claims which he has sometimes backed away from when challenged in the comments section – like the claim that his concerns were ontological rather than merely epistemic. (How can Gödel's work be used to make ontological claims if it is all about what we can know and what we can prove within the context of a formal system?)

I agree with those who call into question Vojinovic's use of Gödel's work (and in general the appropriateness of applying Gödel's ideas to scientific theories) and who talk about the red herrings, etc. which the author's use of Gödel has generated.* Gödel's results are specifically about what we can know and prove within certain strictly formal contexts, i.e. it's not about normal scientific thinking. You can axiomatise certain theories, sure, but such formal structures are entirely provisional from a scientific point of view and subservient in the end to empirical considerations.

In his enthusiasm to make his case, Vojinovic even appears to misrepresent Gödel's basic claims. He writes in a comment: "The moral of the [sic] Gödel’s theorem is that there is a difference between truth and provability, in a given axiomatic system. … Gödel’s theorem establishes the existence of statements that are (a) unprovable within a given axiomatic system, and (b) also “true” in that axiomatic system, given any notion of truth the axiomatic system may be compatible with."

"No," replies one commenter, "there is only one notion of truth in an axiomatic system. That is, provability from the axioms. Yes, there are unprovable statements in ZF [Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory (in effect, first-order logic enhanced to encompass arithmetic: Gödel's original paper referred to Russell and Whitehead's system)]. Such a statement will be either undecidable or provably false. An undecidable statement is true in some models of ZF, and false in others. Gödel proved the existence of undecidable statements in ZF, assuming consistency of ZF. Those statements have a metaphysical interpretation in which they are true, but they are certainly not true in ZF, as Gödel proved that there are models of ZF in which they are false."

Conclusion: "Almost everything Marko says about Gödel is wrong."

Hyperbole perhaps. But the main point is that Vojinovic overreaches by trying to apply Gödel's findings to a hypothetical axiomatised 'final theory'. Science is never about certainty in the way logic or pure mathematics is about certainty – and doesn't aspire to this kind of certainly. This simple fact, I think, undercuts Vojinovic's whole argument.

Sure, the validity of arguments on scientific questions matters, but the primary focus is not on validity (as it is in logic, etc.) but on soundness. The axioms, in other words, must all be 'true' – and this is something we can never affirm with absolute confidence. They are always going to be provisional and revisable (in the face of new evidence); and the formal system or theoretical context in which they are embedded is likewise always going to be provisional, even if it functions successfully as – and so is thought to represent – a 'final theory'.

* "... Marko wants to prove that Weinberg’s reductionism is wrong. There are several problems. If Goldbach’s conjecture turns out to be undecidable, then why would that have any physical implications? And if it did, then some physical experiment ought to decide it, thereby eliminating the issue as any impediment to reductionism. So there is no actual connection between Gödel and reductionism, except to confuse readers with red herrings." [From Part II comment thread.]

Monday, December 15, 2014

Mathematics; panpsychism

Last month I listed a number of topics (mainly linguistic, psychological and historical) I have been thinking about. The last item on the list was the most philosophical, relating to the challenge that mathematics can be seen to pose for empiricism.

Mathematics is often presented as a deep and interesting area of knowledge which is somehow independent of the empirical world. Well, it certainly is a deep and interesting area of knowledge, but it is also very much a product of physical brains interacting with the wider physical (and cultural) world. Sure, it operates at a very high level of abstraction; and, sure, many mathematicians are mathematical realists (or Platonists) who feel themselves to be exploring (and discovering things within the context of) an independently-existing and non-empirical realm.

But the old idea of a realm of pure mathematics without applications (promoted by mathematical Platonists such as G.H. Hardy) is looking increasingly forced and dated (i.e. tied to a particular cultural tradition). It's well known that ideas from pure mathematics often find subsequent – and unexpected – applications. Non-Euclidean geometries, for example, were originally developed in the 19th century as pure mathematics but subsequently found applications in cosmological theories.

What Hardy shied away from particularly, however, were technological applications. He would not have been happy that his own area, number theory, which he loved for its purity and uselessness, turned out to have important applications in computer science.

Cantor, of course, was also a Platonist. I was looking again at his 'diagonal argument' which shows that the set of real numbers is not countable (denumerable) – so that some infinite sets (as George Orwell might have put it) are more infinite than others.

But I always feel uneasy when infinities (even common or garden variety infinities like the sequence of natural numbers or the expansion of pi) are built into arguments. Cantor's argument is clever and convincing in a sense, but the (infinite) matrix on which it is based is merely imagined (or postulated, or projected).

I think I'm okay with mathematical procedures which involve an unending series of steps (potential infinity); but not with mathematical objects which contain an infinite number of elements (actual infinity).

So it seems that I am an intuitionist, but I can't really say at this stage whether I'm a finitist also. (The latter only recognize mathematical objects which can be constructed from the natural numbers in a finite number of steps).

Another topic I've been thinking about is panpsychism. What prompted my (renewed) interest was coming across a philosophically-oriented blogger with a PhD in theoretical physics whose nom de plume happens to be 'Panpsychist'. He had made some intriguing comments on a post by Massimo Pigliucci on reductionism in science and invited people to continue the discussion on his site. (Massimo has set limits on comments at Scientia Salon.)

I followed quite closely but didn't participate in the reductionism debate which was characterized by a certain degree of terminological confusion, specifically about the meaning and application of certain terms used in the philosophical literature, e.g. "token physicalism" (which is associated with "supervenience") and "type physicalism" (which is associated with "strong emergence").

Panpsychism is relevant to the topic of reductionism in that it can be seen as a way of getting around the problem of reducing mental properties to physical properties.

'Panpsychist' rejects dualism and also rejects the idea of emergence, the idea, as he puts it, "that mental properties emerge from certain configurations of regular, non-mental matter." He says that reading David Chalmers convinced him that the standard idea of emergence was wrong because it failed to address the 'hard problem' of consciousness. He also argues against the view that panpsychism is an essentially religious position.

Some time ago I considered and rejected David Chalmers' take on the so-called hard problem of consciousness as unconvincing and unscientific. Basic to his approach is imagining beings that look and behave just like humans but lack conscious awareness; logically coherent perhaps but utterly implausible both in terms of common sense and in terms of science.* Biological creatures have various levels or degrees of consciousness or awareness or sentience: that's just how things work. And imagining a world in which quite arbitrary – not driven by scientifically-based reasoning – differences apply is merely idle speculation. Also, Chalmers-inspired approaches tend (as I see it) to be too much focused on human consciousness rather than on more primitive – and basic – forms of awareness from which the former ultimately derives. The sentience of simple life-forms is where the real (philosophical) interest lies, in my opinion.

I have also in the past seriously considered and rejected panpsychism, but I do acknowledge that the curious spectacle of an apparently inanimate universe producing sentient and ultimately conscious organisms – and so in a sense becoming conscious of itself – does give one reason to ponder the possibility that consciousness (in some form or other) is fundamental (in some sense or other).

Looking again at these issues, I note that the revival in panpsychism in philosophical circles (prompted in part by Chalmers' work in the 1990s) is being driven largely by 'process' thinkers. (It used to be called 'process theology' but the 'theology' is generally dropped these days and replaced with 'thought' or 'thinkers' or nothing at all.) It all goes back to Whitehead – and ultimately to neo-Platonism, I suppose.

I tried to read Whitehead a couple of times, but found him rather vague and wordy and (unnecessarily?) obscure. It's not just that he had grown up when 19th-century philosophical idealism was at its zenith and had internalized old idealist assumptions and ways of speaking because I've read and found interesting the work of F.H. Bradley who was not only an idealist but had far less mathematical and scientific knowledge than Whitehead. I think perhaps Bradley had keener insights into human psychology than Whitehead and so was more grounded. He also had a better prose style, which is often a sign of groundedness.**

Despite not warming to Whitehead's work (or that of his followers), I do like the idea of seeing fundamental reality as process rather than 'stuff'. (The fact that matter and energy are functions of one another makes old-fashioned materialism unviable.)

This view fits in nicely with the idea of computation, and with seeing the cosmos as some kind of computational (or computation-like) process.

And finally, returning to mathematics, I see the natural numbers also in terms of process: namely iteration.***

* As I see it, logic derives from and is intimately related to mundane real-world and scientific reasoning. Logic may be an independent discipline but this does not entail that the subject of the discipline constitutes or forms the basis of some kind of alternative reality.

** Heidegger comes to mind here also: despite the excesses and idiosyncrasies, his language meshes with reality somehow (at least some of the time!).

*** As they are expressed, for example, in Church's lambda calculus. On the whole, Church is a bit too abstract (and Platonic) for me however.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Thoughts and questions

Here are some thoughts and questions which have come to mind recently. I will definitely be following up on some of them.

• Human communication is not what it seems. This is a fact which typically takes some time (and multiple relationship failures) for us to learn. Even relatively straightforward and sincere messages are routinely construed by recipients quite differently from how senders conceive them such that, while what is being sent and received at the level of symbols is the same thing (i.e. the same set of symbols), what is being sent and received at the level of interpreted symbols are different things.

• The contingent (and unrepeatable) features of any individual's upbringing – which includes as a central element a unique and ever-changing cultural matrix – raises awkward questions about values. We like to think of our core values as being, if not objective or universal, then at least as having some permanent or abiding relevance. But do they?

• Terms like 'moral' and 'ethical' refer to important aspects of human behaviour but I am inclined to think that ethics can only be usefully intellectualized when approached in a more or less descriptive way. Nietzsche in his more scientific moods is my model on this front. I don't know that normative ethics can ever be a coherent intellectual discipline – in part because making moral judgments and decisions is not just an intellectual matter. A very 'thin' kind of ethics based on notions such as reciprocity might be seen as a precondition for any kind of social life and so as uncontroversial, however.

• Is there – as Karl Kraus thought – a deep and intimate link between morality and how we use language? (I don't think so. Not in the way Kraus saw the matter, anyway.)

• What is the cause (and significance?) of the disappearance of the subjunctive and, more generally, of formal and literary modes of speaking and writing?

• What is the source and significance of that strange sense of dread and guilt which some people feel deeply and others don't feel at all? This is one of those many topics which you could approach via psychology or historically. The Etruscans were said to be particularly prone to such feelings, and certain strands of Christian thinking were driven by this sort of thing. There was, I recall, an obscure member of the Vienna Circle who wrote something on this topic (taking a psychological approach). Must look him up.

• The Idealist and Romantic notion of the spirit or genius of a language or a people generally makes far too much of linguistic and cultural groupings, imputing to them not only a life of their own but also a destiny to fulfil, a totally implausible – and very dangerous – idea which is still being energetically propagated today. Culture is crucially important, but clearcut cultural and linguistic boundaries between languages and cultures simply don't exist.

• In fact, the very notion of a (natural) language is problematic. Certainly it represents an abstraction from empirical reality. (Chomsky believes that there are only (overlapping) idiolects.)

• The early-20th century fad for constructed international languages: what was driving it? How did this movement – or competing set of movements – relate to other international movements of the time, like socialism for instance?

• The nature of mathematics. Can mathematics be fitted into a (broadly) empiricist epistemology and/or a naturalistic worldview?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Dial M for Metaphysics

I had to laugh when I saw this advertisement for a kind of New Age one stop shop. You can certainly imagine people paying these folks to get hypnotic help to give up smoking or lose weight, or access other services like counselling or massage or even astrological guidance. But I just couldn't figure out why anyone would want to consult a metaphysician.

Of course, what these people mean by 'metaphysics' is very different from what academic philosophers mean by it. The term has long been appropriated by New Age types. What you might find in the metaphysics section of a bookshop, for example, would bear no relation to what academic philosophers mean by the term.

In fact, the very word 'philosophy' is becoming problematic. People have all sorts of notions of what philosophy might be, but few of them mesh with how academic philosophers see their discipline. And even academic views of philosophy tend to diverge alarmingly between different schools of thought and traditions and even between individuals.

I recently tweeted [@englmark] the above photo with a comment to the effect that the appropriation of such words by others may indicate that academic philosophy is losing the battle for the very terms which have traditionally defined it. This prompted the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci to come in and suggest that science and the sciences face similar problems. He cited so-called 'creation science' and the use (or misuse) by mystics of quantum physics.

But neither example is a complete appropriation and both merely represent attempts to use the prestige and respectability of science to promote religiously-driven points of view.

Unlike Massimo, I think that confusion over terms like 'metaphysics' and 'philosophy' may be indicative of more general problems facing the discipline, and that academic philosophy has suffered a significant loss of status in recent decades – especially in scientific and secular circles. (An essay of mine published earlier this month at Scientia Salon dealt with some of these issues.)