Bryan Caplan  

Philosophy and Rational Irrationality

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Now that Robin knows what philosophers think, he likes them more.  I recently received a thoughtful email from Ph.D. philosophy student Matthew Skene that makes the opposite case.  Here's the full message, reprinted with permission.

My name is Matt Skene, and I'm a graduate student in philosophy at Syracuse University, and a former student of Mike Huemer's at the University of Colorado, which is how I got to know about you.  I saw on your blog a couple weeks ago that you were trying to defend dualism in philosophy of mind on the basis of common sense.  I'm actually writing a dissertation doing just this at the moment.  I'm arguing that (1) We should accept common sense philosophy, (2) Common sense philosophy commits us to interactive substance dualism, and (3) The arguments against dualism aren't sufficient to override the initial justification dualism gets from being an element of common sense.

I thought you might be interested to know that the part of my defense of (1) that I'm currently working on appeals to your book The Myth of the Rational Voter.  I use your basic reasoning about rational irrationality in situations with low practical costs and apply it to philosophy.  The results are rather disturbing, as I use it for a backdrop for defending the following argument:

(1) Principle of Epistemic Rationality: (PER)- It is not epistemically rational to believe something just because it is interesting, original, or controversial.
(2) Publishability Fact: (PF)- In order to get regularly published in philosophy, you need to be able to say things that are interesting, original, and controversial.
(3) Perverse Incentives: (PI)-The practice of philosophy incentivizes non-rational motives of belief formation; specifically, it incentivizes believing things that are interesting, original, and controversial whether or not they are true. 
(4) Sad Truth: (ST)- Almost all claims that are interesting, original, and controversial are false.
(5) Unfortunate Conclusion: (UC)- The practice of philosophy encourages philosophers to believe and to publish things that are false.

It seems that philosophers are actually worse off than the average voter when considering their incentives.  Most things that affect people's beliefs in politics are simply irrelevant to the truth, although they do produce a number of false beliefs about economics.  The things that influence philosophers, though, are typically positive indications that their beliefs are false, and so their sources of bias are worse.  Also, there is a greater personal benefit for philosophers to believe these things, since it makes it much easier to be successful in their profession.

What I take from this argument is that part of the job of a sound philosophical method must be finding ways to fight these perverse incentives that lead us away from the truth.  I then argue that common sense philosophy is best suited to do so, and therefore that it should be preferred.  I do this by indicating mechanisms for getting people to listen to false claims, and showing how the methods of common sense (described in an earlier chapter) protect against the desire to use these mechanisms.  If you'd be interested in seeing this chapter, or any of the rest of it, when I've completed a draft I'd be happy to send it to you.

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Greg Ransom writes:

Want to become a major philosopher?

Come up with an argument with a crazy conclusion that takes gobs of energy and brain power to refute.

Or sneak an obvious sounding but actually fatally flawed premise into an argument which "solves" a hard problem.

David Lewis is sometimes suggested as the modern prototype.

Greg Ransom writes:

The primary problem is that false pictures and false solution patterns in philosophy generate endless publications and dissertation topics -- this is the central incentive structure.

Work like Wittenstein's or even Hayek's or Kuhn's or Popper's which points away from these mistakes doesn't offer up easily evaluated publications or dissertations -- the mistakes have something closer to a formal metric for "rigor" while Wittgenstein is letting the flymout of the bottle by exposing the falacies of formalist tradition for understanding language, meaning and knowledge. Likewise, Kuhn, Hayek and Popper explode the ancient demand for justification based on the geometry model of "science" or demonstrative knowledge. This ancient demand and the false pictue of meaning and language going back to Plato is the thing that provides most of the endless games in philosophy generating endless publications and dissertations.

Fabio Rojas writes:

This post seems to be a reformulation of a basic argument about academia: we select people for being clever, not being right. I like Matthews description of philosophy's mission, to save us from perverse incentives.

I wonder what Matthew might think about the institutions of academic philosophy. For example, what are the incentives of blind peer review? Does that mitigate the problems he identified in the email?

mdc writes:

I would like to congratulate Mr Skene on coming up with such an interesting, original, and controversial idea.

The problem is, I think this one might be true. Which, when you think about it, is rather the point: philosophy, like most things, progresses by coming up with hundreds of new ideas that are wrong, so that we can find the handful that are right (or, as right as anything can be in philosophy). If philosophers only produced uninteresting and unoriginal ideas that everyone already agrees with then they may as well not bother.

He does raise a good point to not trust everything you read in journals, though.

Jeff writes:

Of course, everything Skene says about the practice of academic philosophy is also true of most other academic disciplines, including economics.

Joe Marier writes:

So... you're advocating Thomism, right? And yes, I would like to see the chapter.

Philo writes:

Matt's insight is not original; when I was in graduate school back in the 60s my adviser quoted Richard Taylor to similar effect, and I doubt that Taylor was the first to notice the phenomenon.

Matt's claim (3)--Perverse Incentives--seems slightly off. Philosophers are encouraged to *assert* what is interesting, orginal, surprising, etc. (thus provoking controversy). It is not clear that they are encouraged to *believe* these assertions.

Greg Ransom writes:

"The primary problem is that false pictures and false solution patterns in philosophy generate endless publications and dissertation topics -- this is the central incentive structure."

Note well. Economics has exactly the same incentive structure ...

zeljka writes:

"Publishability Fact: (PF)- In order to get regularly published in philosophy, you need to be able to say things that are interesting, original, and controversial."

This is not true. In order to get published, you need to say something that is 1) original 2) well-argued. In philosophy, the latter is probably more important, and in other fields even more so. Saying controversial stuff will not make you a published author, unless the argument is prima facie air-tight. And being 'interesting' is clearly not a requirement for publication, as philosophical journals clearly demonstrate.

Philo writes:

@ zeljka:

"Well-argued" is an overstatement, though you do have to have some sort of argument, at least half-way plausible. But Matt's (PF) doesn't deny that.

zeljka writes:

"But Matt's (PF) doesn't deny that."

I didn't say that he denied by that he ignored the single most important factor in one's getting published.

The academic literature does not suffer from the problem of being too controversial, interesting or original. It's quite the opposite - it is meticulous and scholarly yet incremental and boring.

Matt Skene writes:

Thanks for the comments. I'm glad most of you liked the argument. I think I should have been clearer about exactly what the argument is supposed to show. The argument is simply supposed to characterize an incentive structure that could be followed to the detriment of the field. It's actually an incentive structure that will apply to any field where success is partially measured by getting people to listen to what you think about something. Since this is more applicable to philosophy than most other fields, and since the practical costs of error are lower in philosophy than in many other areas, the potential for a problem is just a bit higher here.

In later parts of the chapter, I talk about reasons to think the incentive structure really causes a problem in the field, and I talk about some ways that contemporary analytic philosophy helps mitigate the problem through higher standards for peer review. I think there are still plenty of outstanding difficulties, though, that would be better dealt with by a common sense approach.

Zeljka, I think there are two points worth noting about your comments. First, interestingness depends on the audience, and since philosophers rarely talk to anyone except other philosophers, it's possible for lots of boring stuff to be found interesting by people who publish journals. I think this isolation of the field helps in some respects, since it helps keeps standards high, but it also divorces the field from potential instances of public ridicule that I think would often serve as a much needed wake up call.

Second, I wasn't trying to ignore the need to argue well. In fact, since reasoning is the key method of persuasion in the field, I think the standards for good reasoning in analytic philosophy journals are higher than they are anywhere else. But I view this as an optional constraint of your philosophical method, rather than a part of philosophy as a practice. One of the main complaints that analytic philosophers have about continental philosophy is that they think the standards of reasoning in continental philosophy are far too low; not "new age section of the bookstore" low, but certainly lower than they need to be protect against potential errors that arise from mistakes in reasoning.

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