Monday, March 21, 2005

On the Shoulders of Giants

In my previous post, I remarked on the surprising self-confidence of contemporary philosophy. I was thinking of the question, how much we should worry about the apparently dismal history of the subject. At least most philosophers, at most times, have been confused and mostly mistaken. It is hard not to be moved by this, at least at first. Probably we are all confused and mistaken, too.

This argument is similar in structure to the "pessimistic meta-induction" in the philosophy of science:
All previous scientific theories have been false.
So, in all likelihood, our own scientific theories are false.
The details are no doubt complicated, but there is something obviously fishy about this argument. After all, even if science were progressing steadily towards the truth – (meaning what?) – which is just around the corner, we would still predict a history of getting it wrong. Conceived as an inference to the best explanation (i.e. that science is hopeless) the pessimistic meta-induction fails because it ignores a competing explanation of the data that is, at least, just as good.

The case of philosophy is rather different, both for superficial reasons – there is more present disagreement than in science, I suppose, and not all of us reject the past (some of us are Kantians!) – and for deeper ones. It is hard to tell the story of philosophy as one of conjecture and refutation, leading steadily to the truth. But we have to say something, don't we?

The great modern philosophers have had quite a lot to say: Hume, Kant and Wittgenstein give phrophylactic theories of past philosophy, designed to expose and guard against fundamental mistakes. They take their own epistemic position to be radically different from that of their predecessors, and so believe that progress (of sorts) can now be made. (A more amusing example: van Inwagen deduces that he must be granted a power of philosophical intuition denied to David Lewis, since, without being able to argue for it, he knows that Lewis is wrong.)

I think it is true that most contemporary philosophers do not accept this sort of view. So I am led to wonder: how do they respond to meta-philosophical scepticism?

Some suggestions are not reassuring. It does not help to argue (as some do) that the questions of philosophy have changed throughout its history, so that we are not faced after all with a persistent failure to get the same questions right. Unless we add that the questions changed because the old ones were successfully answered, what comfort is that? Nor would it please many of us to learn that philosophy is "logical embroidery on a given design", meant to give intellectual satisfaction by working out the details of a historically determined worldview it cannot pretend to justify. (I take this picture from Edward Craig.)

I suspect – or speculate – that many philosophers would answer that philosophy is parasitic on science, and so its progress will flow from the general improvement of our worldview away from superstition and towards the truth. Philosophy may be "logical embroidery on a given design" but the design is one in which we can trust. Thus, if we can solve the pessimistic meta-induction for science more generally, philosophy comes for free.

If it works, this argument this would make the prevalent deference to science in philosophy more intelligible and more defensible. It would help to vindicate "scientism". Unfortunately, I don't see how it would help philosophers like me, who work primarily in ethics. Nor can I find it in myself to share Parfit's optimism, at the end of Reasons and Persons:
Disbelief in God, openly admitted by a majority, is a recent event, not yet completed. Because this event is so recent, Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in Mathematics, we will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.


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