Aug 122004

Humans have suffered three thousand years of philosophy now, and it’s time we took stock.

Explanations. A successful explanation decomposes a complex question into its constituent parts. You ask why blood is bright red in the air and the arteries and darker red in the veins. I tell you that arterial blood has more oxygen, which it collects from the lungs and carries it to the heart, than venous blood, which does the opposite circuit. Then I tell you that blood contains iron, which bonds to oxygen to form oxyhaemoglobin, which is bright red. I can demonstrate by experiment that these are facts. I have offered a successful explanation.

Of course it is incomplete. I haven’t told you how I know the blood circulates, what oxygen is, how chemical bonding works, or what makes red red. But I could tell you all of these things, and even if I don’t you know more about blood than you did when we started.

The explanation succeeds largely because the question is worth asking. You notice an apparently strange fact that you do not understand. You investigate, and if you are lucky and intelligent, maybe you get somewhere. Philosophers, by contrast, when they sit down to philosophize, forget, as a point of honor, everything they know. They begin with pseudo-questions like “Do I exist?” (Descartes) or “Does the external world exist?” (Berkeley and his innumerable successors), the answers to which no sane person, including Descartes and Berkeley, has never seriously doubted. Kant, the great name in modern philosophy, is the great master of the showboating pseudo-question. The one certainty about questions like “how is space possible?”, “how are synthetic judgments possible a priori?”, and, my favorite, “how is nature possible?,” is that you will learn nothing by asking them, no matter how they are answered. Kant rarely bothers to answer them and such answers as he gives are impossible to remember in any case.

Explanations would seem to be philosophy’s best hope, but its track record is dismal. There has been the occasional lucky guess. Democritus held, correctly, that the world was made up of atoms. Now suppose you had inquired of Democritus what the world-stuff was, and he told you “atoms.” Would you be enlightened? In any case he couldn’t prove his guess, or support it, or follow it up in any way. Atoms had to wait 2500 years for Rutherford and modern physics to put them to good use. If you asked Parmenides how a thing can change and remain the same thing, he would have told you that nothing changes. It’s an explanation of a sort. But would you have gone away happy? Grade: Two C’s, two D’s, and an F. Congratulations Kroger, you’re at the top of the Delta pledge class.

Predictions. To be fair, predictions have been the Achilles’ heel of many more reputable disciplines than philosophy, like economics. Human beings have a nasty habit of not doing what the models say they should, and most philosophers retain enough sense of self-preservation to shy away from prediction whenever possible. Still, a few of the less judicious philosophers of history, like Plato, Spengler, and Marx, have taken the plunge. Spenglerian cycles of history take a couple thousand years to check out, fortunately for Spengler, but Plato’s prediction of eternal decline and Marx’s of advanced capitalism preceding communism were — how shall i put this politely? — howlingly wrong. The very belief that history has a direction is a prime piece of foolishness in its own right.

Brute matter is more tractable. Einstein’s equation for the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, which Newtonian mechanics could not explain, is a classical instance of a successful prediction. Although the precession was a matter of a lousy 40 seconds of arc per century, Einstein wrote Eddington that he was prepared to give up on relativity if his equation failed to account for it. Ever met a philosopher willing to throw over a theory of his in the face of an inconvenient fact? Me neither. Grade: No grade point average. All courses incomplete.

Tools. OK, there’s propositional logic, for which Aristotle receives due credit. But really that’s more mathematics than philosophy, Aristotle’s version of it was incomplete, and it took mathematicians, like Boole and Frege, to make a proper algebra of it and tighten it up. With this one shining exception philosophy has been a dead loss in the tools department. Probably its most famous contribution is Karl Popper’s theory of falsifiability, which turns real science exactly on its head. Where real science verifies theories, Popper falsifies them. Most of us consider “irrefutability” (not “untestability,” which is a different affair) a virtue in a scientific theory. For Popper it is a vice. Mathematics, which is obviously not “falsifiable” and equally obviously “irrefutable,” supremely embarrasses Popper’s philosophy of science, and Popper takes the customary philosophic approach of never mentioning it.

Far from supplying us with tools, philosophers have taken every opportunity to disparage the ones we’re born with. According to Berkeley things do not exist outside of our mind because we cannot think of such things without having them in mind. According to Kant we are ignorant because we have senses. I cite these arguments not because they are bad, which they are, but because they are the most influential arguments in modern philosophy.

To modern philosophy in particular also belongs the unique distinction of making the ad hominem respectable. According to Marx we reason badly about economics because we are bourgeois. According to the deconstructionists we are racist, being white; sexist, being male; and speciesist, being homo sapiens. Grade: Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.

Advice. Moral advice from philosophers divides into two categories, the anodyne and the dangerous. Under the anodyne begin with Plato and “know thyself,” which is to advice what “nothing changes” is to explanation. Kant recommends that we treat our neighbor as we ourselves would be treated, which works well provided our neighbor is exactly like us, and sheds little light on the question of how we would wish to be treated, and why. Rand counsels “rational self-interest,” which might be helpful if she told us what was rational, or what was self-interested.

Under dangerous file Nietzsche’s “will to power,” just what a growing boy needs to hear. (Yes, he is tragically misinterpreted, and no, it doesn’t matter.) But utilitarianism, “the greatest good for the greatest number,” with its utter disregard for the individual, is the real menace. Occasionally some poor deranged soul actually tries to follow it, with predictable consequences. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the consistent utilitarian, the unblushing advocate of infanticide and cripple-killing, Mr. Peter Singer. The sad fact is that your moral intuition, imperfect though it is, gives you better advice than any moral philosophers have to date. G.E. Moore, confronted with this fact, responded with “the naturalistic fallacy,” from which it follows that the way we do behave has nothing to do with the way we should behave. Well George, natural selection, which largely governs our behavior, has seen us through for quite a long time now, which is more than I can say for moral philosophy. Grade: Zero point zero.

One loose index of the value of a discipline is whether it helped humanity out of the cave. Mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and even a few economists have all made their contributions. As for philosophy — we programmers have a term to characterize a programmer without whom, even if he were paid nothing, the project would be better off. The term is “net negative.”

Is it too late to start over? Tomorrow we will consider a better approach.

(Update: Bill Kaplan notes in the comments that I had the Einstein-Eddington story backwards, which reflects no credit on Einstein but, alas, none on the philosophers either. Umbrae Canarum comments. Colby Cosh wittily points up my debt to David Stove, to whom I owe some, though not more than 95%, of the argument. The original draft contained an acknowledgement of Stove, which was inadvertently omitted in the final version thanks to a transcription error by one of my research assistants. I recommend Stove’s The Plato Cult to anyone with even a mild interest in the topic. You skinflints can find a few of his greatest hits here. Ilia Tulchinsky comments. Jesus von Einstein comments. Ray Davis comments.)