Bryan Caplan  

What Philosophy Needs: A Strong Dose of Hanson

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Robin Hanson and I have our fair share of philosophical disagreements. But the longer I stayed at the Social Philosophy and Policy conference, the more I kept thinking, "These people desperately need a strong dose of Hanson." To be specific:

1. Few philosophers seemed to have integrated the basic Bayesian lesson that any argument for X that is less convincing than expected implies that you should reduce your probability that X is true. Instead, philosophers seem to think that any logically valid argument from plausible premises that implies X strengthens the case for X. It doesn't.

2. Few philosophers attach any epistemological weight to the fact that other smart, well-informed people radically disagree with them. Of course, the fact of disagreement does not imply that you're wrong, but it's got to raise the probability. Yet over the course of a three-day conference, I don't recall a single instance where a philosopher seemed troubled by his failure to persuade his peers. If anything, disagreement made the typical philosopher more confident than he was to start.

Closing thought: At risk of offending two disciplines at once, the main problem with philosophy is that it is too much like law: A field where people are more concerned about winning arguments than learning about the world. Don't they know that if one of us finds the truth, we're all winners? :-)


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COMMENTS (27 to date)
Scott Scheule writes:

Bryan,

Few philosophers attach any epistemological weight to the fact that other smart, well-informed people radically disagree with them. Of course, the fact of disagreement does not imply that you're wrong, but it's got to raise the probability.

What the Hell? This is coming from a libertarian moral realist?

Closing thought: At risk of offending two disciplines at once, the main problem with philosophy is that it is too much like law: A field where people are more concerned about winning arguments than learning about the world. Don't they know that if one of us finds the truth, we're all winners? :-)

This is a thinly veiled attack on me! That may apply to litigating attorneys, as it probably applies to Think Tank economists, but it falls flat when talking about legal academics (at least if you're attempting to differentiate them from economic academics).

razib writes:

the analogy to law makes it much clearer!

Arnold Kling writes:

So, Bryan, when people there disagreed with you, did that make you noticeably less confident about your point of view?

Rue Des Quatre Vents writes:

Your law-analogy is a good one. It also touches on something Jonathan Haidt noticed about moral judgments: we have a quick fire intuition, then our reason is brought in as a lawyer to defend the case. And that lawyer will bring any argument forward in order to win.

All this touches on a point raised by Tyler, though not in a way he would expect, given the intent of the comment. He said that strongly differing view points were invited to philosophy conferences because they require an obligatory kantian and a utilitarian and so on.

But here I'll draw on Haidt to square the circle: most academic political and moral philosphers are left-wingers and have been even before becoming philosophers. They have their antecedent judgements, and then 6 years of study brings out the lawyer in them to defend it.

The evidence for this is that you see no variation in political beliefs, only in the reasoning adduced to defend it.

Javier writes:

I agree with Scott--you hold philosophical positions that many professional philosophers strongly reject. First, you seem to hold some kind of libertarian understanding of free will and desert. Second, you appear to be a kind of moral intuitionist. I think it is fair to say that the majority of philosophers who work in ethics, free will, and political philosophy reject all of these views. Are you going to start revising those views in light of this disagreement or at least be less confident in them?

Kevin writes:

Dear Bryan,

As a philosopher and fan of this blog/your work/you, I have to respond:

1) Philosophers rarely change their minds when they fail to persuade because (and this is probably being charitable) they realize that what position you hold isn't determined by the argument alone. One man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens, as they say. Many times philosophers agree that an argument is valid, but they realize that that doesn't settle the argument. The problem is figuring out *what else* determines the argument. And most philosophers just answer: my intuitions. That's why experimental philosophy is getting hot, in part because it gives us hope that we can develop a method for preferring some intuitions over others.

So I think Hanson's principle doesn't apply well here. You may think, "The argument is valid and people will share my intuitions, so I expect they will accept the conclusion." They find that people don't share their intuitions, but that doesn't really tell them what to do; should they prefer their intuitions or someone else's?

(2) As for the second part, you should know that this is changing. A small literature on the epistemology of disagreement is growing rapidly. Just google 'epistemology of disagreement' to see.

Also note that post-Theory of Justice Rawlsians, what you might call the public reason liberals, are keenly aware of the theoretical implications of disagreement. Just see Rawls' discussion of the burdens of judgment in Political Liberalism. People have made much of this in political theory, at least in some communities.

And of course, experimental philosophers count here as well. Many experimental philosophers will try to affect their intuitions when they find that most people disagree with them.

But there are worries about this: (1) Must we be intuitional populists? YOU SURE WON'T WANT TO BE! And (2) Don't philosophers have SOME conceptual expertise? And (3) what if the experiment was done poorly? Should you choose to revise your intuition or should you choose to reject the experiment's methodology? It's not clear. Finally, (4) intuitions also underlie the methodology of the experimental philosopher; so it's not clear how to escape utter reliance on intuition.

David Kritzberg writes:

Did you consider the possibility that as a class, philosophers are simply bigger risk-takers than economists?

That would result in more wasted careers, but a greater chance of producing the kind of towering genius that upsets applecarts.

Maybe we could use more of that in economics...?

Troy Camplin writes:

A few observations from Socrates:

1) a majority opinion does not have anything to do with truth (and can be dealy to boot)

2) one learns what the truth is through agonal dialogue (though too many think that agonal dialgue is an end in itself)

3) it is rare to find anyone who has the truth (Socrates could find no one wiser than him, and he admitted to knowing nothing)

AC writes:

Philosophy started out as a big mansion, with a bunch of different rooms -- one for the contemplation of the nature of matter; one for the stars; one for human anatomy; one for ethics; one for epistemology, and so forth. Over the centuries, philosophy has had to close off one room after another as the action has moved outside.

The problem with philosophy is that it historically has provided answers to the wrong questions. Past performance may not guarantee future results, but I suspect that we will eventually find, for example, that ethics can be completely explained as an intricate application of game theory, perhaps with some evolutionary biology and neuropsychology thrown in.

Greg Ransom writes:

Bryan.

Your 1. is false.

And your #2? On the topics that interest them the best philosophers rarely run into anyone who rivals them in being as smart and well-informed as they are. This adds to their immense arrogance.

In other cases philosophers are happy in their ignorance and in the fact that they can play with their puzzles untroubled by uncomfortable facts or arguments that would spoil their formal games. In this philophers are little different than most mathematical economics who are happy to ignore the deep conceptual and explanatory problems at the bottom of their research efforts -- see the work of such people as Friedrich Hayek, Philip Mirowski, Bruce Caldwell, Deidre McCloskey, Alex Rosenberg, and dozens of others on these basic conceptual and explanatory problems.

rvman writes:

Squaring the circle, philosophers are quite aware of both. When people disagree with him, the philsopher finds the arguments used, on the fly and off the cuff, very unconvincing relative to his own work. He probably comes in afraid that so-and-so will tear him apart, but he ends up finding so-and-so's argument less convincing. So he raises his confidence level. Confirmation bias, maybe, but not a Bayesian problem.

Greg Ransom writes:

It should be noted that moral philosophy is a bit different than many other branches of academic philosophy. It would be a mistake to generalize from the class of institutional economics to the class of all economists. Same here.

It should also be noted that the game of constructing moral philosophy as a "theoretical" enterprise on the model of geometric proof and "demonstrative" science is arguably a game without a solution -- i.e. its a mistake. But this doesn't stop if from being a fun -- and endless -- game, and one that pays off in good job with a salary and a pension. Again, sort of like much of mathematical economics.

Most philosophers have the wrong model of what moral philosophy can and should be -- but the game creates endless publication producing puzzles. Again, this is all like much of mathematical economics. Don't expect anyone to give up this game, when it it so good for writing dissertations and producing articles for one's CV -- and for tenure and advancement.

Phil writes:

When people disagree with me *for reasons I judge to be invalid*, that indeed strengthens my confidence in my arguments. I assume that my opponents are likely using the strongest arguments they have. When those fail, it suggests that my views can stand up to anything.

Of course, if peers whom I respect strongly disagree with me, and I haven't yet heard their reasons, THEN I should suspect that I may be wrong. But only if I don't yet know the reasons for their disagreement.

Matthew c writes:

Few philosophers attach any epistemological weight to the fact that other smart, well-informed people radically disagree with them.

You could change the word "philosophers" to "academics" or "people" and the statement would ring just as true.

TGGP writes a blog called "entitled to an opinion". I started to write a blog that could easily have been called "not entitled to an opinion". I see taking that position as the beginning of epistimic wisdom. Perhaps I will take up that project again sometime, because defending radical agnosticism is a project with few champions. . .

The definitive article about what's wrong with philosophy is Paul Graham's "How to do Philosophy":
http://www.paulgraham.com/philosophy.html

It's a great read - highly recommended

TGGP writes:

That may apply to litigating attorneys, as it probably applies to Think Tank economists, but it falls flat when talking about legal academics
What sort of progress has been made in academic legal theory? If there were a Nobel prize for it, who would have won over the past few years?

it gives us hope that we can develop a method for preferring some intuitions over others.
How? You can show difference, but I don't know how you can establish which is preferable.

David Kritzberg, what have those genius philosophers accomplished?

2) one learns what the truth is through agonal dialogue (though too many think that agonal dialgue is an end in itself) 3) it is rare to find anyone who has the truth (Socrates could find no one wiser than him, and he admitted to knowing nothing)
Don't those conflict with one another? Socrates used agonal dialogue and never learned the truth.

Matthew C, in case you're curious I got the idea for the name from this. If you were actually to write a radically agnostic blog it would either be empty or simply consist of "I don't know". Even saying "You don't know" violates radical agnosticism because you don't know if they know.

Matthew c writes:

If you were actually to write a radically agnostic blog it would either be empty or simply consist of "I don't know".

Actually much of the content would be showing how empty are our illusions of knowledge. But it would reference scientific studies like this one, or some others that have appeared on Overcoming Bias.

The point would not be to provide some logical argument about not knowing whether or not we know. The point is rather to hammer away our ludicrous certainty about the rectitude of our own thoughts and beliefs, by examining just how flawed and fallible they are, over and over again. Not something to provide an intellectual conversion, but a true emotional one, a deeply felt understanding of how untrustworthy and contingent are the underpinnings of any particular set of beliefs.

Only on that foundation can a genuine approach to reality be built.

The truth is, I am enjoying my retirement from blogging far too much at the moment to take it up right now. . .

AC writes:
What sort of progress has been made in academic legal theory? If there were a Nobel prize for it, who would have won over the past few years?

TGGP: Richard Posner. Guido Calabresi. At its best, academic legal theory is just a subdiscipline of economics. (Arguably, Coase got his Nobel for his work at the intersection of law and economics.) At its worst, it is doctrinal gibberish.

The law and economics movement brought empirical techniques to law, along with a focus on incentives and outcomes.

Daniel writes:

As to the issue of the epistemic significance of disagreement, it's a relatively hot niche topic within epistemology right now, and there are some philosophers who think that disagreement is pretty important, and that finding out about disagreements with people who we take to be our epistemic peers should shake our confidence. Check out Adam Elga, David Christensen, and Richard Feldman, for three. I think there's a volume on disagreement coming out this year.

All this, of course, is consistent with what's most likely a fact that, even if many epistemologists think that disagreement should have an impact on our beliefs, most philosophers (ethicists included) fail to put this into practice.

Troy Camplin writes:

There's no conflict. He never found anyone who had the truth, but in engaging in agonal dialogue, Socrates came nearer the truth. That doesn't mean he attained it or that it's attainable in its pure state, at least in Plato's metaphysical epistemology

Wes Johnson writes:

As a philosophy major who studied economics then went on to become a lawyer, I have to disagree with your characterization of the legal profession, although I am not offended.

While it is true that lawyers while advocating are "more interested in winning arguments than learning about the world," that is a very incomplete and misleading characterization.

You leave out the central role of adjudication. Some members of the legal profession are trying not to win arguments, but to determine the actual truth (or as close as we can get). That includes not only judges and their clerks, but lawyers who frequently or occasionally act as arbitrators and mediators.

Unlike other disciplines, there is an actual method of determining who is right. If there weren't, legal arguments really would go and on forever, like philosophical arguments.

Roy Haddad writes:

So, Bryan, when people there disagreed with you, did that make you noticeably less confident about your point of view?

He should only have changed his confidence level if there was more disagreement than expected.

guy in a veal calf office writes:

Your comment about lawyers betrays a complete lack of understanding about what they do. At some uselessly broad level every professional and academic is trying to win the argument, but the trick to them all is finding out what's the question or objective? where's the winning argument? how to make it sound like the winning approach? Who needs to be won over? and how to win it from them. Try to navigate an acquisition of foreign business by 3 differently positioned partners through vast shoals of regulatory, tax and business exigencies and explain how that's just winning an argument. But even litigators do far more then argue, let alone the large amount of non-litigators.

Your comment is shockingly shallow, in that its obviously an conclusory impression based on little experience and little thought, and lots of ignorance about an enormous sector of the economy. It sounds like my 5 year old.

Troy Camplin writes:

The fact that lawyers do make up a "large sector" of our economy is troubling. I htink Shakespeare is right: "Fist, kill all the lawyers," then we will solve 90% of the problems we have in this country. We will get rid of 90% of the laws ever put on the books, that have no business being on the books. Sure, there will be a few problems, but all the problems we would solve getting rid of them would more than make up for it.

What do you call 10,000 lawyers as the bottom of the sea? A good start.

HappyConservative writes:
So, Bryan, when people there disagreed with you, did that make you noticeably less confident about your point of view?

This is an excellent question. Too bad that Bryan dodged it.

My guess is that Bryan's confidence in his own point of view was unchanged.

Steve Sailer writes:

Down through the ages, philosophical topics become non-philosophical disciplines over time (e.g., Adam Smith was a philosopher, but now he is known as an economist.) Similarly, Galileo was called a "natural philosopher," but now we think of him as a scientist.

So, what's left in philosophy are the permanently hard questions. As we make progress on answering them, they stop being philosophy and become, say, to pick a current example, cognitive science or evolutionary theory.

Troy Camplin writes:

Yes, Steve, that has been the trend. Unfortunately. And philosophy has abandoned these things as they became re-named. Unfortunately. Nietzsche correctly observed that as this has happend, the things abandoned by philosophy have been put to nihilistic uses. The result? WWI, WWII, the Cold War, 9-11. Philosophy gives meaning. It is meaning -- which can only be gaines in a larger context, by taking a holistic view (philosophy is the love of wisdom, and wisdom takes the holistic view, while knowledge takes the pluralistic, fragmented, reductionist view).

It is a shame what we have allowed philosophy to become. But philosophy does not have to be, or remain, that way.

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