Being a philosopher

There’s an old joke that goes something like this:

The physics department at a university has just asked for more funding in order to pay for larger labs, more equipment, and more computers. The dean is aghast at the costs in the budget and replies, “Why can’t you be more like the mathematics department? All they need is pens, paper, and waste baskets! Or better yet, the philosophy department. All they need is pens and paper.”

This joke used to bother me, because it makes fun of philosophy, and I’m a philosopher. I would say, “I’ve thrown tons of things into the waste basket!”

One of the difficulties about calling yourself a philosopher, or calling yourself anything, is that by doing so, you bind yourself to what being a philosopher entails. In one of his essays, Paul Graham writes that we should try to keep our identities small, because when something becomes part of our identity, we stop having useful conversations about it. He points to religion and politics as examples. Religious and political affiliations often form core aspects of our identities, but religion and politics are the areas of discussion where we have our most violent and unproductive disagreements.

Paul Graham points to a possible exception in a footnote: that of calling oneself a scientist. A scientist isn’t committed necessarily to any particular theory, like Darwinism, in the same way that a creationist would be committed to their theory. A scientist is committed more to a methodology, to follow where the evidence leads. Since a scientist is committed to evidence more than to their privately held theories, they will be open to evidence to the contrary.

In this respect, thinking of yourself as a philosopher may even be better than thinking of yourself as a scientist, because there’s actually much less agreement among philosophers on standard philosophical questions than there is among scientists on standard scientific questions. There was a survey among professional philosophers done in 2009, and the claim that received the greatest agreement was the one stating that there is an external world. That agreement was only about 82%.

That is a remarkably low consensus. Just compare this to the fact that 97% of climate change scientists believe that humans are causing global warming. In other words, philosophers are, on the whole, much less confident that there is a real world than climate change scientists are that humans are causing global warming.

So it seems that calling yourself a philosopher doesn’t tie you to any particular belief, and unlike scientists, it is less clear that you’re even tied to any particular methodology. Forget the fact that there is huge divide between analytic and continental philosophers. Even among analytic philosophers, there is only about a 51% consensus on what even counts as logical (classical or not?), which is the closest thing to a clear standard we use to assess the validity of arguments – and note that this is just to check validity, not soundness.

But what this leads to is the problem that it seems that philosophers can say anything they want, because there is so little agreement among us. We need to find ways to constrain our thinking.

One bad way to constrain your thinking is to add to your identity. Instead of thinking of yourself just as a philosopher, you could identify as a consequentialist, a physicalist, a Kantian about ethics, a Humean about causality, a reasons internalist, etc. What is best for your professional life is probably to come up with an unusual theory, find arguments in favour of it that are not obviously invalid, publish those papers, and attach that theory to your identity. Second best is probably to find new arguments for an unpopular theory, and try to become known as the reviver of that theory. Third best is probably to become a defender of some well-tread philosophical theory or philosopher by investing your time in the scholarly work related to it or him (it’s usually a “him”).

Doing this may help you find employment, and it will probably help you get rid of the feeling that you’re just freewheeling philosophizing. It is however totally unhelpful in finding the truth. For it to be helpful at all, we have to know which theories are true before we add them to our conceptions of ourselves. Constraining ourselves is only useful if the constraints help us get at the truth. Computer scientists have clear constraints on their work. If their program doesn’t output anything or outputs error messages, their code is wrong. If something happens that they don’t expect, their code is wrong. Sometimes the output is close to what they expect but is actually wrong, so they don’t know that there’s a mistake right away. But most of the time, computer scientists can tell right away. Mathematicians have a harder time. The pieces of paper on which they write their proofs do not provide automatic feedback about whether those are good proofs or not. So they have to check and re-check, and they give their proofs to peers to check.

But philosophers have a really hard time. We can look over our arguments over and over again the way that a mathematician would over their proofs. (Which we rarely do, and rarely to the same level of rigour.) We can give our work to our peers, but the best our peers can really do is show that one of our arguments is invalid. But what is the reaction that most of us philosophers have when such a problem is found? The answer should be “Thanks for the help. I’ll try again.” But that’s not the common reaction in the circles I’ve been in.

Here, on this website, I’ve been writing about what I’ve been going through, trying to figure out what it means to face death and cancer, trying to figure out how to live. And a lot of it is probably mistaken. I wonder if nobody’s objecting to what I’ve been saying, because it simply seems too rude to criticize what a terminally-ill man is thinking.

I’m not really asking for objections or criticisms. I just don’t know if I’m getting this stuff about life and death right at all.


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