The consensus of philosophers

Over at his website, Sean Carroll has called my attention to a paper by David Bourget and David J. Chalmers called “What do philosophers believe?” (free download here, reference below). I must admit I’ve only scanned the paper, but the interesting results (highlighted by Sean) reflect whether or not the philosophers agree with various viewpoints and claims.

The survey population is this:

Instead, we chose as a target group all regular faculty members in 99 leading departments of philosophy. These include the 86 Ph.D.-granting departments in Englishspeaking countries rated 1.9 or above in the Philosophical Gourmet Report. They also include ten departments in non-English-speaking countries (all from continental Europe) and three non-Ph-D.-granting departments. These thirteen departments were chosen in consultation with the editor of the Gourmet Report and a number of other philosophers, on the grounds of their having strength in analytic philosophy comparable to the other 86 departments. The overall list included 62 departments in the US, 18 in the UK, 10 in Europe outside the UK, 7 in Canada, and 5 in Australasia.

There were 1972 philosophers surveyed by email in 2009. Their viewpoints on thirty issues are as follows. The philosophers among you will understand the questions; I make no pretense to understanding most of the issues. I have, however, put the ones that most interested me in red.

1. A priori knowledge: yes 71.1%; no 18.4%; other 10.5%.

2. Abstract objects: Platonism 39.3%; nominalism 37.7%; other 23.0%.

3. Aesthetic value: objective 41.0%; subjective 34.5%; other 24.5%.

4. Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes 64.9%; no 27.1%; other 8.1%.

5. Epistemic justification: externalism 42.7%; internalism 26.4%; other 30.8%.

6. External world: non-skeptical realism 81.6%; skepticism 4.8%; idealism 4.3%; other 9.2%.

7. Free will: compatibilism 59.1%; libertarianism 13.7%; no free will 12.2%; other 14.9%.

8. God: atheism 72.8%; theism 14.6%; other 12.6%.

9. Knowledge claims: contextualism 40.1%; invariantism 31.1%; relativism 2.9%; other 25.9%.

10. Knowledge: empiricism 35.0%; rationalism 27.8%; other 37.2%.

11. Laws of nature: non-Humean 57.1%; Humean 24.7%; other 18.2%.

12. Logic: classical 51.6%; non-classical 15.4%; other 33.1%.

13. Mental content: externalism 51.1%; internalism 20.0%; other 28.9%.

14. Meta-ethics: moral realism 56.4%; moral anti-realism 27.7%; other 15.9%.

15. Metaphilosophy: naturalism 49.8%; non-naturalism 25.9%; other 24.3%.

16. Mind: physicalism 56.5%; non-physicalism 27.1%; other 16.4%.

17. Moral judgment: cognitivism 65.7%; non-cognitivism 17.0%; other 17.3%.

18. Moral motivation: internalism 34.9%; externalism 29.8%; other 35.3%.

19. Newcomb’s problem: two boxes 31.4%; one box 21.3%; other 47.4%.

20. Normative ethics: deontology 25.9%; consequentialism 23.6%; virtue ethics 18.2%; other 32.3%.

21. Perceptual experience: representationalism 31.5%; qualia theory 12.2%; disjunctivism 11.0%; sense-datum theory 3.1%; other 42.2%.

22. Personal identity: psychological view 33.6%; biological view 16.9%; further-fact view 12.2%; other 37.3%.

23. Politics: egalitarianism 34.8%; communitarianism 14.3%; libertarianism 9.9%; other 41.0%.

24. Proper names: Millian 34.5%; Fregean 28.7%; other 36.8%.

25. Science: scientific realism 75.1%; scientific anti-realism 11.6%; other 13.3%.

26. Teletransporter: survival 36.2%; death 31.1%; other 32.7%.

27. Time: B-theory 26.3%; A-theory 15.5%; other 58.2%.

28. Trolley problem: switch 68.2%; don’t switch 7.6%; other 24.2%.

29. Truth: correspondence 50.8%; deflationary 24.8%; epistemic 6.9%; other 17.5%.

30. Zombies: conceivable but not metaphysically possible 35.6%; metaphysically possible 23.3%; inconceivable 16.0%; other 25.1%.

59% compatibilists in free will, and only 12% seeing “no free will”? Really? These are the folks who have soothed themselves by replacing the old dualistic notion of free will with an updated one. That doesn’t make me happy. ‘

But the proportion of atheists, 72.8% as opposed to 14.6% theists, does.  Philosophers  have long known that their ranks are largely godless, but this is a striking confirmation.  I conclude that people whose job involves thinking and being rational have largely decided to discard god (though I’m still a bit irked about the compatibilism).

The 27% of people who see mind as largely non-physical is a disturbing figure. That goes against everything that neurobiology has told us, and shows that not all philosophers are on board with science.

I am a consequentialist with regard to ethics (someone who thinks ethical judgements should be tendered based on their consequences) rather then a deontologist (ethical judgements should be made based on adherence to rules), so I’m not wildly happy with the slightly higher percentage of the latter than the former.

As for the trolley problem, I’m glad to see that 68.2% of philosophers would switch the out-of-control trolley onto the other track, killing one person there rather than the five who would have died without the  switch, but I’m puzzled by the 7.6% who wouldn’t flip the switch? What’s the basis for that judgment? And what are the “other” solutions suggested by the remaining 24.2%. You either flip or don’t flip the switch, or you refuse to make a judgment (which, of course, is really a judgement since it results in five people dying). Perhaps they’re simply judging the morality of the action, and can’t reach a conclusion.

If you’re a philosopher, or know about these other issues, feel free to enlighten us and tender your own judgment.

___________

Bourget, D. and D. J. Chalmers. 2013. What do philosophers believe? Philosophical Studies (in press).

272 Comments

  1. Posted May 1, 2013 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    We moral anti-realists obviously need to work harder.

    • Steve Bowen
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      My thought exactly.

  2. brad
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    As a philosopher who chose to get his PhD in the related field of Science and Technology Studies, I’m with you on a lot of it. I can’t believe there are (slightly, thank god) more deontologists than consequentialists! I’m with on the surprise about compatibilism–around my department (which may have been one of the non-PhD granting but voting programs), I’d think it was different. I beseech you to live your life so that you come to put the frankly outstanding results on scientific realism into your field of concern. This is an important issue to people like us. I’ll look closer at the results and may comment more. Thanks for posting this!

  3. Posted May 1, 2013 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    I’m struck by one thing in particular in reading that list.

    Survey a bunch of scientists on comparable topics, and you’ll find overwhelming consensus that, for example: Evolution is true; Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are basically right on (and anything that replaces either is going to have to reduce to both at suitable scales); that the Earth’s surface moves in manners described by Plate Tectonics; and so on.

    Yet these jokers are doing good just to get a slim majority that don’t think that we’re all literally outside of our brains.

    But perhaps that’s not so surprising, considering that this is the same crowd that obsesses over zombies and Star Trek and whose favorite fantasy involves murdering obese strangers by pushing them off bridges into onrushing trains because they have the secret knowledge that doing so will derail the train thus saving the schoolchildren and making them the heroes for once in their lives.

    I do believe that this study has, empirically, utterly demolished any remaining credibility of philosophy as an academic discipline. It’s the last stronghold of alchemy, astrology and, yes, theology. Can we stop pretending that they’re doing anything but wasting all kinds of resources?

    Cheers,

    b&

    P.S. Jerry, the trolley problem is just a poor reimplementation of the Milgram experiment, with the philosopher playing Milgram and you pressing the button to kill the stranger. And, just as in the Milgram experiment, the proper answer isn’t to play the game and flip the (fake) switch to punish / kill the drunk hobo instead of the young mother, it’s to get the proper authorities on the scene immediately. Either you’re a trained railroad professional who knows exactly what that switch does or you’re some random schmuck wandering on the scene incorrectly assuming you’ve got all the same safety training as the professional. If the former, the question doesn’t apply; you’ve got the training and skills to deal with the situation. If the latter, you don’t touch the switch (which, for all you know, could make things worse) but, rather, you call 911, get help on the scene, and help the investigators in the aftermath figure out what happened. But, in modern Western society, the set of real-world situations where civilians should be touching that switch is basically empty. b&

    • Posted May 1, 2013 at 6:49 am | Permalink

      I am fairly sure you would have a harder time finding >90% agreement among scientists on the following topics just from my area of expertise:

      – Does long distance dispersal play an important role in biogeography?

      – Is sympatric speciation possible?

      – Do species exist as real entities in nature or are they merely arbitrary human-defined categories? Or is it something in the middle?

      – Why did the megafauna of area X die out? (There is an awful lot of people who simply do not want to accept that humans did it even if the animals died out in the first 1,000 years after human arrival.)

      – Is the current distribution of forests in area X natural or anthropogenic? (As above, a lot of people don’t want to believe that the “noble savages” were perfectly able to mess up the ecology of an area before the arrival of Western colonists.)

      Does that make biology and ecology a joke now?

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:18 am | Permalink

        I think the overall analysis is sound:

        If philosophy has no means by which to adjudicate facts, other than time making some stances and/or questions either irrelevant (because empiricism got there) or uninteresting (because society has moved on), the generic absence of consensus follows.

        That does make philosophy a joke as you put it, according to the outsider’s test.

        • Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

          There is good and bad philosophy, just as there is good and bad science, in particular when some arguments come down to nitpicking about semantics. But, it’s pretty narrow minded to write off the whole field. Many of the threads on this site have a philosophical element and I don’t see anyone laughing about that.

      • Diego
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink

        Good points, Alex! I had similar thoughts.

    • agentwhim
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:20 am | Permalink

      If people didn’t discuss these things you wouldn’t even know that taking a position on them is important. Your claim that philosophy is pointless is self-defeating.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink

        Delusions of grandeur. … excuse me, the usual note is “claim in need of reference”.

        Some of these are socially important, but very few would be without philosophy and/or theology pushing the ideas (say free will).

        I also add that I believe ethics is useful within legislation and its use.

    • David Sepkoski
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:31 am | Permalink

      Ben, I think you’re getting carried away here. You have a particular hypothesis–that all philosophy is bullshit–and you tend to see it confirmed everywhere you look. But you’re painting with an overly brush, I think.

      Take, for example, the atheism/theism results. If you read down through the paper, there’s some really interesting analysis of correlations. The authors of the study find, for example, that while 86.78% of “non specialists” identify as atheists, only 20.87% of “specialists” do. In this case, specialists are “philosophers of religion,” which might well be taken as evidence that philosophy of religion is kinda bullshitty. You could probably likewise find other interesting correlations with other questions, as well.

      The point is that philosophy is a very large, heterogeneous discipline, with many different specialties and approaches, and that broad condemnations such as yours (e.g. “this is the same crowd that obsesses over zombies and Star Trek and whose favorite fantasy involves murdering obese strangers by pushing them off bridges” or “I do believe that this study has, empirically, utterly demolished any remaining credibility of philosophy as an academic discipline”) are perhaps a bit hasty. But others on this site have pointed out to you in the past that perhaps your conception of philosophy is a bit superficial, and that clearly hasn’t changed your mind, so I’m not expecting you to now.

      • David Sepkoski
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:32 am | Permalink

        Oops – “broad brush”

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

        What is wrong with the outsider’s test? Eg is the discipline internally valid (have means to adjudicate facts) and externally useful?

        I think philosophy fails on both counts, with the possible exception of ethics which is claimed to have external use no matter what.

        The Courtier’s Response is also leveled on Dawkins because he doesn’t respond to every theological minutiae and he hasn’t read the koran – hence ‘always a bit superficial’. But we can’t have it both ways, if the Courtier’s Response is invalid there, if there is a function of diminishing return to dig further, that applies everywhere.

        • Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink

          It’s been a long time since ethics was a philosophical endeavor. Today, ethicists are doing serious science. Consider how medical ethicists are concerned with measurable changes in patient outcome, and spend all their time poring over longevity and relapse statistics and patient response surveys and the like.

          Truly, the only remaining vestige of philosophy in legitimate sciences is the quaint, archaic “PhD.” title awarded in many disciplines. But Jerry’s PhD. no more makes him a philosopher than it makes him a physician (doctor).

          Nor are we all Teutonics today worshiping Wotan on this, Wednesday, his weekly day….

          b&

          • Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

            Obviously, this reply should have gone upthread…sorry….

            b&

    • Sastra
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

      Ah, you just made a fine philosophical argument against the value of philosophy. But now there’s a new problem …

      • Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:05 am | Permalink

        Is NASA doing astrology? Is CERN doing alchemy?

        No?

        Then what makes you think that all scientists are philosophers?

        b&

        • Vaal
          Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

          Ben you missed Sastra’s point there.

          You can not help but make philosophical points (even if implicitly) all the while dismissing philosophy. This is a problem for your position.

          Do you think it is a good idea to take a critical look at our assumptions or not?
          Do you think it a good thing to recognize a good argument from a fallacious one?
          I’d think you do. If so, this is what is done in philosophy. And it’s what you do as a matter of course here all the time.

          If you want to say that we ought to choose science over religion, that science is a “better” way of knowing (about the universe or whatever), on what grounds will you make the case? If you say “I’m going to make the case based on the scientific way of knowing” (assuming science) I’d ask: Are you familiar with the problem of Begging The Question? (Because you will surely reject an argument that begs the question from other people).

          Vaal

          • Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:00 am | Permalink

            And you’re missing my point.

            Philosophers claim that all other disciplines are really just branches of philosophy.

            But they have no more right to make that claim than theologians do to make the exact same claim whilst also subsuming philosophy into theology.

            Science. It works, bitches.

            That’s all the justification necessary for our assumptions.

            Science has that feedback loop, the rational analysis of empirical observation — that’s its defining characteristic. And we know that it works because we see it working. The computer you’re reading these words on? It’s entirely a product of science; philosophy didn’t even remotely contribute a hint of anything to its design and construction.

            Philosophy doesn’t have any feedback mechanism at all. There’s no method of determining which philosophies are superior to others, short of turning to a rational analysis of empirical observation — to science.

            TL/DR: science works; philosophy is bullshit.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • David Sepkoski
              Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

              Who are these dastardly philosophers who are running around trying to take credit for all of science? ‘Cause that’s not an argument I’ve actually ever heard a philosopher make–nor would one even care, I suspect.

              And by the way, taunting people you’re arguing with by calling them “bitches”–whether or not you link to a jokey website, implying that you’re being ironic–is pretty bad form. Whatever your intention was, it’s not funny, and I’m pretty sure it violates at least a couple of the rules Jerry has for these comments.

              • David Sepkoski
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:30 am | Permalink

                Great–that makes it ok, then. And while you’re at it, why don’t you call people n***er and f***ot, too? After all, I’m pretty sure other people have used those words. And you can always just claim you’re being ironic.

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

                Yeah, the “it works, bitches” meme is a general one and I don’t think it’s a slur on anyone commenting here. The rules are still the rules, but this is a slogan that’s been bandied about as a sort of crowing of triumph, not an attack (at least here) on particular people.

            • Vaal
              Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

              “Science. It works, bitches.

              That’s all the justification necessary for our assumptions.”

              Wow.

              First, you just made yet another philosophical claim. While dismissing philosophy as b.s.

              Second: You really think that just covers the basis for justifying all our assumptions?

              Do you think it’s ok to beg the question or special plead when presenting an argument?
              If not, exactly what would you use to justify your saying “it’s not ok to accept arguments containing those fallacies?”

              Would your justification be…Science?

              But, you’ll see in science you’ve already
              assumed the virtues of rejecting such fallacies, so you can not justify them via science…otherwise you are Begging The Question.

              And your “it works” criteria carries assumptions that you *know* “it works” and that “it works” is the criteria by which one ought to use science over religion, and that there are justifications for the methods
              of science. “It works” only makes sense if you have some criteria for what would count as “knowledge” in the first place, otherwise how do you think you know “it works,” how it works and why it works, etc.

              And the justifications for each of those steps will be philosophical. They CAN’T be “scientific” only because you are asked to justify the scientific approach. If you justify it by ASSUMING the scientific approach, you are begging the question.

              It’s like the biblical literalist Christian who says the bible is clear because it “interprets itself.” You point out “Uh…but you just interpreted that passage of the bible, others interpret it another way.” The christian says “No, no I had no such role in the process.” They use an epistemological blindness to their own role in the process that they deny is even happening. It’s the same bizarre site to see someone denying the worth of philosophy while making arguments that rely on philosophical justifications/assumptions, but denying they are doing it.

              Vaal

              *btw, there ARE good justifications for science over religion…but it’s silly not to recognize the justifications themselves will rely on examining the assumptions for doing science, and therefore can not simply assume the method being justified.
              That’s philosophy.

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

                Second: You really think that just covers the basis for justifying all our assumptions?

                Yes.

                Science works. That is its only justification, and the only one it needs.

                Come up with something that produces more results than science, and we’ll talk.

                When a philosopher can philsophize the mass of the Higgs without checking to see that that’s what its mass really is, we can deal with the rest of your concerns.

                But it really, truly, is entirely a matter of empiricism.

                When we compare ideas with observations and refine our ideas until they match the observations, we get results. When we don’t, we get sick and we get injured and we get cold and we get hungry and we die.

                All your other philosophical propositions that you hold dear? Either your trust in them is warranted and you know so because they’ve withstood repeated encounters with reality, or you haven’t put them to the test and your trust isn’t warranted.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Vaal
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

                Ben,

                Either you are using a scientific stance to justify the scientific stance, and hence begging the question.

                Or you are using some other, deeper level of justification and analysis to justify science, in which case you are not doing science, you are into philosophy.

                This is why you can’t justify using science over religion to know about reality by “doing science.” That is begging the question. Hence you have to have some other, more fundamental criteria. You are appealing to “it works” as the criteria – pragmatism – and in doing so you are not using science, you are right into the realm of philosophical justification. You can’t just dip yourself into philosophy and claim you aren’t doing it because philosophy is b.s. (You’ve also assumed the philosophical stance of scientific realism, which is not fully assumed across the board even among scientists who’ve thought on the topic}.

                You seem to cast anyone who notices the philosophical content of a claim into the world of “hooey” or “b.s.” None of the atheists here are trying to validate hooey.
                I’m talking about good vs bad arguments, and to understand what makes a good or bad argument* we have to talk about underlying logical structure and assumptions, which is the realm of philosophy (not that I’m any hot-shot in philosophy by a long shot).

                It appears you don’t care whether you are begging the question or not, at the same time as you are making claims that rely on all manner of assumptions (that can not be in of themselves “science”).

                So, I don’t see how this can go anywhere from here.

                Vaal

                *I listened recently to a debate/discussion between Massimo Pigliucci
                and Michael Shermer. One hardly needed to agree with Massimo’s overall view to see that Massimo at least was better at recognizing and pointing out the flaws in an argument. Shermer’s arguments were sometimes just awful, broken strings of reasoning, for the very reasons Massimo was pointing out.

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink

                I’m surprised such a fan of philosophy wouldn’t recognize such a blatant false dichotomy.

                Science is justified by its fruits — by computers and indoor plumbing and the LHC and all the rest.

                I’d even go one step further.

                If you think there’s a problem with science justifying its utility by observing its usefulness because your philosophical spidey-sense says that’s a circular no-no, then it’s not science’s problem. It’s yours.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Baobab
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

                Ben:

                You might want to think a bit harder about this. Fruits of science also include nuclear weapons, bioterrorism, superbugs, global pandemics, cyberterrorism, massive loss of biodiversity (the “sixth” mass extinction event in 3.5 billion years), global warming, and so on.

                As it happens, I do think that science is justified, but not because of it’s “utility.”

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

                Baobab,

                Science “works” in the sense that nothing else is going to do better at helping you accomplish your goals.

                It is only recently that the science of ethics has started to blossom, in which science is now being turned to the question of which goals you might most wish to have. Give it some more time to mature, and the same science that’s figuring out that informed consent is a good idea in the hospital will eventually figure out that actually using those death toys maybe isn’t such a good idea after all.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Baobab
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

                I understand that science “works” — it is a great instrument for rationally achieving one’s ends. I was just pointing out that all the ends you picked out were good; but one could just as well use science for tremendous evil.

                You earlier stated that philosophy is just bad science. I think your understanding of philosophy and its relation to science is probably extremely impoverished. (A similar thing might be able to be said about the nature of science itself, which many scientists don’t have any deep insights about.) I strongly urge people not to speak too strongly about topics with which they are not very conversant. Much of contemporary philosophy is conceptual in nature, rather than empirical. There is no strict line here — much of Dawkins’ work is deeply philosophical in that it involves analyzing scientifically-relevant concepts like “phenotype.” And there are some philosophers who do quite a bit of empirical work. But there is clearly space for both, whether one recognizes it or not: the fact is that as long as science involves concepts, there will always we no-empirical (or quasi-empirical) issues relating to what exactly these concepts amount to. For example, what is a phenotype? What exactly is a gene? What about an organism? Is natural selection best thought of as a mechanism or a process? What is explanation? What’s the difference between explaining a phenomenon with a law vs. a mechanism? (For a while, philosophers and scientists thought explanations with laws were the only legitimate one; and then came biology!) Does science make progress? If so, what is the nature of this progress? Is consciousness a physical thing? What exactly do we mean by consciousness anyway? (I.e., what *constitutes* a conscious state, where constitution and causation are two distinct, but very often conflated, issues.) And so on. I really don’t care if one wants to call the field to which such questions belong “philosophy” or “Joe.” It doesn’t matter. The point is that what philosophers are doing is different, on the whole, from what scientists are doing. And the analysis of concepts — getting our ideas of what space, time, bosons, consciousness, organism, etc. as clear and distinct as possible — is just as important as the examination of empirical data to evaluate competing theories about the nature and workings of reality. In the case of ethics, for example, there is ultimately nothing science can say — that is, insofar as it’s an empirical enterprise — about what values we *ought* to accept. Once we fix, though cogent “philosophical” argumentation, that something like “the well-being of organisms” is a foundational moral value, *then* we can indeed use science to figure out, empirically, how best to achieve this non-empirical end.

                Have you read CP Snow’s “Two Cultures”? You seem to be the flip side of the Postmodernists, who liked to talk about how stupid science is without really understanding it one bit. (But maybe I am wrong about this.)

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

                I strongly urge people not to speak too strongly about topics with which they are not very conversant.

                Ah, yes. The Coutier’s reply.

                Much of contemporary philosophy is conceptual in nature, rather than empirical.

                Exactly.

                And that’s why it’s bullshit.

                It has no means of validating its results.

                Almost all your questions are stamp-collecting worries. Do I put this stamp in with the red ones or the ones memorializing famous people?

                And some of them are downright silly. If you really can’t tell that science has made progress, if you don’t think we know just a wee bit more about the universe we find ourselves in today than at the dawn of civilization…well, it’s rather hard to (politely) respond to such a question.

                Or there’s this:

                Once we fix, though cogent “philosophical” argumentation, that something like “the well-being of organisms” is a foundational moral value, *then* we can indeed use science to figure out, empirically, how best to achieve this non-empirical end.

                No, that’s simple Darwinian evolution.

                Whatever your definition of well-being, for it to have any meaning, humans with it are going to prosper and thrive and those without won’t. If a better understanding of what it is helps to increase your amount of it, those who best understand it will be the ones writing the science books of the future.

                You’ll notice that the entire exercise is entirely empirical and decidedly unphilosophical.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Baobab
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

                “If you really can’t tell that science has made progress, if you don’t think we know just a wee bit more about the universe we find ourselves in today than at the dawn of civilization…well, it’s rather hard to (politely) respond to such a question.”

                This gestures at why, as I was arguing before, the world needs not more atheists per se but more people who are careful, clear thinkers. I understand, Ben, that to you some things seem obvious. There are many people who think God’s existence is perfectly obvious — in fact, I’ve literally been told things almost exactly like what you say above: it’s hard to respond politely to someone who doesn’t even see the glory of God all around.

                This is the whole point of taking a step back, trying to think carefully about issues, being open to alternatives, and adopting a fallibilistic stance towards knowledge. (Indeed, fallibilism is the very spirit of science!) It’s really disappointing to me that denizens of this website — a great website (not blog!) — are so quick to make such strong statements, without any apparent reflection or tentativeness; so quick to suggest that conceptual clarification isn’t extremely important. I feel like I’m arguing with a dogmatic religious person again here — aggressive, with stronger opinions than they should have, given what they (apparently) know.

                I suspect that many of the greatest scientists of the past 100 years have been extremely supportive of philosophy, from Einstein to Dawkins to Pinker, and so on. As mentioned before, much of what Dawkins himself does is conceptual in nature.

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

                This is the whole point of taking a step back, trying to think carefully about issues, being open to alternatives, and adopting a fallibilistic stance towards knowledge.

                As Sagan observed, “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”

                If you can’t tell the difference at a glance between today, with modern healthcare, the Internet, and indoor plumbing…and, say, Plato’s time when Humors were the height of medical theory, communication was by horseback, and sophisticated plumbing involved “potable” water delivered in lead pipes…

                …well, if you really think that it’s an interesting question as to whether or not science is progressing, then you should be spending less time worrying about science and more time scooping your brains back in your skull.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • MrHolbyta
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

                I feel like I’m reading Plato’s Gorgias only with scientist replacing rhetorician.

            • Peter
              Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

              “The computer …[is]… entirely a product of science; philosophy didn’t even remotely contribute a hint of anything to its design and construction.”

              Oh, except for the part where actually it did. Right? Is that so obscure? Background on the relationship between Philosophy of Math and Turing’s contributions to the theory of computing, which contributes quite a lot to how modern computers and programs are designed:

              http://www.philocomp.net/home/hilbert

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

                There you go again, claiming that all math / logic / everything else under the Sun is really just philosophy and therefore philosophers are responsible for everything.

                Why not just claim Henry Ford was a philosopher and therefore the assembly line was the product of philosophy and be done with it?

                Oh — I know! The guy flipping at the fast food joint is a philosophy major at the local university, so those are all metaphilosophical burgers.

                b&

              • Peter
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

                Well, Russell and Whitehead and apparently David Hilbert considered themselves philosophers as well as mathematicians. And their philosophy motivated the work they did on the foundational problems in that field.

                Now, I’m sure you’re not concerned about things like No True Scotsman, but basically you shouldn’t really pick everything philosophers do that turns out to be worthwhile and retroactively exclude it from being philosophy.

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

                Not all that long ago, “philosophy” was used as a synonym for science.

                And I wouldn’t play the bagpipes in the way that you’d suggest.

                But I do draw the line at empiricism.

                If you’re doing a rational analysis of empirical observations (even if you’re only tackling some small portion of the problem), then you’re doing science, whatever the shingle over your office door says.

                If that empirical observational feedback loop is missing — as it is for most of philosophy and all of everything it’s best known for — then you’re not doing science.

                You may also, of course, be doing bad science, and philosophers do a lot of that. If you were to put together a survey of trolley car problems and questioned a bunch of random people about it in a methodical manner, you’d be doing science, yes, but very badly. Specifically, you’d be re-creating some very famous work in psychology (especially done by Milgram) and the results you gather wouldn’t say anything about what philosophers say they want to learn about. And we know that to be true because of the actual, real, well-done science by actual, real, scientists (such as Milgram).

                Cheers,

                b&

              • peterr
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 6:06 am | Permalink

                This Peter is not the one who has responded on this non-blog often, and disputed the odd thing with Ben. I responded to two below re logic purely, but from now on will use the above “Peterr” to avoid confusion.

            • Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

              “The computer is entirely a product of science”. That’s nonsense: For instance, Alan Turing’s work was intricately bound up with certain problems in the philosophy of mathematics and philosophy of mind.

              • Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:37 am | Permalink

                Oh See Peter above made the same point and BG’s answer is to define any useful type of thinking as being science… What some people don’t seem to appreciate is that science doesn’t just consist of people standing around in white coats watching bubbling test tubes – sometimes it takes some thought up front to decide what goes in those tubes (among other things :)).

              • couchloc
                Posted May 3, 2013 at 8:15 am | Permalink

                Of course philosophy contributed to the development of the computer! If you knew your history you’d know that one of the central figures in the development of computer theory was Leibniz–a philosopher. Look up the history of the computer and you’ll find references to him. Also, does it matter at all that Turing’s work on computer intelligence was directly concerned with philosophical issues, and his paper was published in a philosophy journal? If he was doing science why didn’t he publish it elsewhere? See Turing, A.M. (1950). “Computing machinery and intelligence.” Mind, 59, 433-460. To this day MIND remains a preeminent philosophy journal.

          • DV
            Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

            Philosophy doesn’t have exclusive claim to the act of “making a philosophical point”. You don’t need a degree in Philosophy to be able to reason and argue.

            • Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:41 am | Permalink

              Nor do you need a degree in science in order to find out things about the physical world.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

        I always found that analysis childish.

        [Especially if it goes on to claim that philosophy needs to be met on its own terms, or theology on its own. It is as claiming that health effects of smoking can only be understood by smokers.]

        But here it is a non sequitur: “I do believe that this study has, empirically, utterly demolished …”.

    • Marcoli
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      These are both interesting points, but the difference seems to be that philosophers cannot come to a clear consensus on their most basic questions, some of which have been wrestled with for centuries. I think this problem is because many of their questions are subjective, so there can be no consensus, and they are inserting subjectivity into some of their more objective questions.
      Most scientists are in strong consensus about most of their basic questions, when there is enough data, b/c there is an objective foundation to it.
      For biology the species problem is a bit of a hang up, but I think there is a ‘best’ answer which is they are ‘something in the middle’. By that I mean sometimes species are real entities, and sometimes they are human-defined.
      There is one basic question in biology for which there seems no consensus: What is Life?

      • Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

        I don’t think the “species problem” is all that you make it out to be. Different branches within biology use different definitions, sure, but that’s because different groupings of organisms have different reproductive strategies. When it comes down to it, complaining that there’s no universal definition amongst biologists for “species” is like complaining that there’s no universal definition amongst physicists who specialize in electromagnetism (especially optics) for “purple.”

        And the same applies to “life.” Are viruses alive? Prions? Dr. Venter’s genome on a CD? The exact definition doesn’t really matter. No virologist is going to do anything different based on whether you define a virus as alive or not.

        At the same time, (virtually) all biologists are going to agree that there’s no magical spiritual “spark of life,” and that it’s all “just” chemistry (which, in turn is, “just” physics).

        In a lot of ways, it’s not unlike objecting to heliocentricism because it doesn’t address the question of what animals draw Helios’s chariot….

        Cheers,

        b&

      • darrelle
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

        “There is one basic question in biology for which there seems no consensus: What is Life?”

        I am not so sure that there is actually a huge lack of consensus so much as serious difficulty in devising a general enough definition of “life” to encompass any conceivable “living” system. Things sure do get fuzzy when you approach the machine / biological divide though.

        • Marcoli
          Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

          There is almost complete agreement in what is a living thing (cells), and the operations of cells are mostly similar in their detailed components and chemistry. So one would think that there would be a general definition of what life is. I have my own definition, but apparently so does everyone else. Addy Pross in his interesting little book “What is Life?” mentions that he counted over 40 definitions in the literature for just one year.

          • darrelle
            Posted May 1, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

            Yes, but, in my experience the reason people don’t agree with a given definition of life (and I do agree that they don’t agree) is not because they don’t agree with what is included by the definition. It seems to me that more often they disagree because they can conceive of an exception to the definition.

            They don’t, generally, disagree on what life is, on whether a thing is alive, (though there is some disagreement there as well), just on a good inclusive definition.

            • Marcoli
              Posted May 1, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

              Good. A case in point on where there is some disagreement on whether something is alive are viruses. I personally do not regard them as alive, but textbooks often say (or strongly imply) that they are. Funny how we can almost agree on what a living thing is, but do not have a consensus on defining life.

      • Posted May 2, 2013 at 3:17 am | Permalink

        “Life” is a word whose usage can vary according to context. It’s not a fundamental property of the universe, so there is no “correct” definition as to what the word means. Presumably though BG would argue that such philosophizing is useless, since it isn’t “science”, in which case we can go on arguing about the meaning of words until the cows come home.

    • Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      It’s a thought experiment, Ben. And one from which we can learn important things.

      • Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

        If you’re referring to the Trolley Car, the only thing to be learned from it is that, when a philosopher pretends to play at ethics, he does so in complete and utter ignorance of the foundational work of the field — in addition, of course, to everything else that real ethicists are actually concerned with.

        You honestly could not more spectacularly demonstrate your incompetent ignorance of ethics than by “designing” the Trolley Car “experiment.”

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

          You think there is no value in the knowledge that a majority of people would “flip the switch” but not “push the fat guy?” I think that’s very interesting and probably useful information to have. And it can help us learn important things about our natural (evolved) moral sense. Not ethics, morality.

          • Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

            I think Stanley Milgram already demonstrated that most people will commit heinous atrocities, including sometimes even murder, if a perceived authority figure tells them to do so in a suitable manner.

            Perhaps you could help us understand why it makes a difference which murder fantasies people respond to more readily?

            No, scratch that.

            Perhaps you could help us understand why philosophers, against all rules of ethics developed by psychologists and other empiricists in the wake of Milgram’s work, are persisting in pursuing these lines of “research” in complete absence of supervision from proper oversight bodies?

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

              You didn’t answer my question, but I will attempt to answer yours. There is no authority figure telling you to do anything in the trolley problem. It is interesting to know that most people think it is right to flip the switch, but not push the fat guy. We can learn about human morality from this thought experiment.

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

                Of course there’s an authority figure telling you to do something in the trolley problem.

                The philosopher is telling you to decide which person to kill.

                And the “experiment” is only better than the famous Nazi SS torture device of telling a father he must choose to see the troops murder his wife or his daughter in the sense that it’s only playing out in your imagination.

                I’d be surprised if your local university would permit students to turn these types of “thought experiments” into the actual experiments that they’re required to perform as part of their studies. If they did, there’d be no escaping the ghost of Milgram; there’d be heavy oversight with lots of attention paid to not making subjects think it’s okay to kill fat people to save skinny ones.

                And, again. All this is stuff that’s covered in a non-major undergraduate-level introductory to psychology class. Philosophers who think they’re discovering profound insights into human nature with this bullshit are as pathetic as if they were trying to figure out how much sooner a bowling ball will hit the floor when dropped than a pool cue.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

                Of course there’s an authority figure telling you to do something in the trolley problem.

                No, someone is asking you to answer a question. Same as in any kind of poll or survey.

                And the “experiment” is only better than the famous Nazi SS torture device of telling a father he must choose to see the troops murder his wife or his daughter in the sense that it’s only playing out in your imagination

                I suspect most people see a clear moral difference between a thought experiment that does not actually involve any actual deaths, and a real act of murder.

                I’d be surprised if your local university would permit students to turn these types of “thought experiments” into the actual experiments that they’re required to perform as part of their studies.

                No kidding. Not only is actually tying people to tracks and actually running trolleys into them against the law, but I’m pretty sure your local university would consider such an experiment to be profoundly unethical too. A thought experiment of this kind, however, is not against the law and is not unethical.

            • Posted May 2, 2013 at 3:39 am | Permalink

              The problem here, Ben, is that in the minds of the people who are answering the question, the “heinous action” IS pushing the fat person in front of the train, and the majority of them refuse to do so. Thus, your links of Milgram show a complete lack of understanding of what those cases are supposed to prove, at which point you then go on to chastise philosophers for not realizing that their questions have already been answered. They haven’t. Trolley cases are designed to test if the moral intuitions of people are Utilitarian or not. The first case, of flipping the switch, seems to indicate they are. The second case, however, seems to indicate they aren’t. Sure, it’s more psychology than philosophy — as philosophers themselves love to point out — but finding out those intuitions and then trying to discover the reasons for the difference is quite interesting to moral philosophy … and psychology would simply stop at the results, and not dig deeper into whether or not those reasons make sense.

    • Ramchal
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      lol, as they say.

      a) those distinctions for which scientists supposedly have clear answers are philosophical distinctions. the very idea that, for example, ethics might be consequentialist, is (to simplify radically) a philosophical idea. framing the law in rational utilitarian terms rather than based on traditional precepts needs etc. etc.

      b) a survey of medieval scientists would have produced resounding acceptance of an aether. (disregarding the fact that there was no such thing as scientists.)

      c) i assume one is being satirical by saying the correct response to the trolley problem is to call the authorities. (ha ha.) assuming utilitarianism, should the state be allowed to coerce citizens to donate their bone marrow? why? why not?

      d) judgement day is nigh! (jokes, bro.)

      • Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

        <sigh />

        a) You’ve got an even stronger argument that these aren’t philosophical matters but religious ones. Their bafflegab is even more ancient, detailed, and all-encompassing than that of the philosophers.

        b) The thousand-year-old ideas we (rightly) laugh at today are still much less worng than the two-thousand-year-old ideas they replaced. Indeed, even the flat Earth model is still quite useful today; just go to your local gas station and buy a street map if you want proof of how very useful it is. Newtonian Mechanics are as outdated today as the Aether, yet it’s still what the people who design and build cars and planes and buildings use.

        c) If you really think that an untrained civilian stumbling upon a perceived crisis in progress has any business fucking with critical industrial safety equipment, I can only hope that you never find yourself in a situation you personally find scary. You’re exactly the type to wrestle with the pilot for control of the plane the moment the stall warning sounds on approach.

        e) Yeah, and Batman lives, too. Whatever.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Posted May 2, 2013 at 5:28 am | Permalink

          “On the way, I shared the backseat of Feyerabend’s little sports car with the inflatable raft he kept there in case an 8-point earthquake came while he was on the Bay Bridge.” — Lee Smolin

          The intrinsic qualities of discourse depend on the inevitably of being sculpted by reality.

    • Keith Buhler
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      Survey a bunch of scientists on comparable topics, and you’ll find overwhelming consensus that, for example: Evolution is true; Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are basically right on…

      So, argument I simplified seems to be:
      1. If there is overwhelming consensus about P among experts, then (very probably) P is true.
      2. There is overwhelming consensus among experts that evolution (etc.).
      3. Evolution (etc.) is true.

      This is a valid argument. Let’s try another:

      Argument II.
      1. Overwhelming consensus about P among experts indicates that P is true.
      2. There is no overwhelming consensus among experts that mind-body dualism (etc.) is true.
      3. Mind-body dualism (etc.) is false.

      This is an invalid argument (denying the antecedent).

      Also, your valid argument relies upon Modus Ponens. Did we discover modus ponens (and other necessary logical relations) via scientific investigation?

      Mm…

      Keith

  4. Posted May 1, 2013 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Nature of This World and commented:
    This is interesting, and the comments ad the end made by the author are funny. I always wondered if my professors believed all the stuff we studied, or which ones were playing devil’s advocate in light of the general consensus among the student body. They critical analysis offered by philosophical undertakings does present a generally atheistic overview. Probably one of philosophies biggest questions is whether or not there is some sort of omni-presence.

  5. Posted May 1, 2013 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Run this survey in the year 1413, 1613, or 1813, and the results…?

    Really, Jerry: is polling is a reliable guide to truth?

    Any philosopher who would rest his views on a survey of what his colleagues believe should turn in his philosopher’s badge.

    And take up advertising. Or marketing.

    • Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      I think you’ve completely missed the point.

      • steve oberski
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

        That’s what he gets paid to do.

        • Marta
          Posted May 2, 2013 at 6:44 am | Permalink

          +1

  6. Posted May 1, 2013 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    59% compatibilists in free will, and only 12% seeing “no free will”? Really? These are the folks who have soothed themselves by replacing the old dualistic notion of free will with an updated one. That doesn’t make me happy. ‘

    I am not categorically saying that you are wrong and that majority of philosophers is right, in fact I think the issue is too semantic to even see it in terms of right or wrong as long as everyone agrees that there is no “contra-causal” free will, but… have you considered that this large number of the top philosophical departments of the planet may conclude things for better reasons than mere delusion?

    That perhaps their majority view should indicate to us, as non-philosophers, something somewhat similar to a majority view of, say, ecologists on a certain ecological topic would indicate to us as non-ecologists?

  7. jaxkayaker
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    The most surprising thing for me was that Dr. Coyne didn’t think that survey item 30 was of interest.

  8. Matthew Putman
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    I find the free will question to be almost reactionary, and perhaps this comes from the poor communication of us scientists when it comes to complex ideas. Philosophers rely on scientific evidence (hopefully) to evaluate a philosophical hypothesis. It is guess that some are misinterpreting Quantum Mechanics, and enormity of valid but still highly speculative ideas in cosmology to indicate a type of agency, which physics has actually disregarded long ago. The two points on compatibilism that I have heard have something to do with ethical consequences of a no free will universe, which I don’t believe to be a problem, but even if it were has nothing to do with reality. Whether it is better for society or not doesn’t have much to do with science. (in the case of no free will, there can be actual ethical benefits regarding compassion, but that is not my point) The other is a kind of agnosticism, which in this case is an excuse to understand less about physics and biology than they should by pointing out inconclusive research, rather than looking at the overwhelming conclusive research.

  9. Posted May 1, 2013 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    “have you considered that this large number of the top philosophical departments of the planet may conclude things for better reasons than mere delusion?”

    Yes, but then on inspection I’ve dismissed the notion. I’ve never seen one that’s convincing.

    I guess as you move from science through philosophy to theology the more mystical the thinking gets. Philosophers, for all their claims to the contrary, are no better at metaphysics and logical argument than anyone, and are easily persuaded by ‘possibilities’, or more likely, that there are so many ‘possibilities’ makes them indecisive when it comes to making sensible reasoned estimates about what models are worth working with and which can be consigned to fantasy – see recent post here on the Marcus response to Schmidhuber, Eagleman, Plantinga. And to see how much undue respect philosophers give to extremely poor theology passed off as philosophy from Plantinga, see http://philosophypress.co.uk/?p=1146.

  10. Posted May 1, 2013 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    The 27% of people who see mind as largely non-physical is a disturbing figure.

    I’m not sure what is disturbing about that.

    For myself, I see the mind as metaphorical, which would put me in the “non-physicalism” camp, yet is not at all an anti-science view.

    • DV
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink

      Mind is metaphor for what exactly?

    • Sastra
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      Yes. I would have to know more about what the term “non-physical” meant when it comes to the mind. Mind/body dualism? Or other alternatives.

      I suspect philosophers mean something different than the religious do. The religious tend not to think so hard or analyze so much.

  11. ReasJack
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    In the absence of free will isn’t the real outcome of the Trolley Problem a purely empirical question?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      Sam Harris addresses this question in his Free Will book, “If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king—well, then killing the king reflects the sort of person you really are. The point is not that you are the ultimate and independent cause of your actions; the point is that, for whatever reason, you have the mind of a regicide.”

      So although there is no free will, you still are who you are.

  12. Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Very few comments in and already there is a terrible number of blanket statements about philosophy and philosophers that are fully equivalent to the misguided ramblings about the supposed arrogance and overreach of scientism and about how science destroys the world by inventing weapons elsewhere.

    See, have you ever asked somebody, “how do you know that?”, or told them, “that is circular reasoning”? At that moment you have done philosophy (epistemology and logic, specifically). You cannot avoid doing it, just like nobody from the other side, if there is one, no matter how much they wave the silly problem of induction around when it suits them, can avoid doing protoscientific hypothesis testing every single day of their life, e.g. when they try to figure out where that strange sound comes from.

    Philosophers are merely the pros for the former just as scientists are the pros of the latter. And believe me, there are a lot of cranks and incompetents among us scientists too. We get things right because we constantly criticize each other, not because we are all so good individually.

    Seriously, I cannot believe that I have to defend the mere existence of professional philosophy here at the same time as defending science in a thread over at Massimo Pigliucci’s blog where he raised the spectre of scientism again… Perhaps he is more correct than I thought.

    • Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      See, have you ever asked somebody, “how do you know that?”, or told them, “that is circular reasoning”? At that moment you have done philosophy (epistemology and logic, specifically).

      Sorry. No.

      Nor are you doing religion the moment you perform charity (because Jesus ranted something on the subject).

      Nor are nuclear power plant engineers doing alchemy (even though they’re transmuting elements)

      Nor are NASA researchers doing astrology (even though they’re predicting certain future events based on the motions of the planets).

      We don’t need philosophy to know that there is great utility in empiricism.

      http://xkcd.com/54/

      Philosophy doesn’t work. Doesn’t even come close. That’s an empirical observation, by the way, confirmed in part by the very evidence Jerry included above. If philosophy worked, there’d be consensus on at least the millennia-old basic, simple problems.

      Hell, philosophers are still stuck on fucking Platonism, without even a majority opinion on the matter.

      For that matter, what you cite as philosophy’s stronghold, it’s raison d’etre, epistemology? Philosophers haven’t a clue about that, either. Philosophers don’t even know how it is that they’re supposed to know what they know the most about.

      Philosophy is a really bad joke. It’s atheistic theology.

      It’s bullshit.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Sastra
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:46 am | Permalink

        You’re defining “philosophy” too narrowly. Your arguments work against a particular version of philosophy, one which totally divorces itself from empiricism — not the category itself. Science is a sub-set of philosophy.

        I think you’re really arguing over semantics here.

        • Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

          And theologians claim that all philosophy — and therefore, by extension, all science — is really theology since it’s all the study of Jesus’s great glorious creation.

          Philosophy, by definition and certainly by practice, is anti-empirical. Those who do philosophy don’t ever get their hands dirty with actual empirical inquiries. Those who practice empiricism are biologists, physicists, astronomers, chemists, geologists…you know? Scientists.

          Are philosophers eager to claim the fruits of science for their own? Yes, of course — just as much as the religious. But they’re not the ones who got us here, and their masturbatory flailings do diddly-squat to move us further.

          Consider all of the super-important questions philosophy is supposed to answer, from the origin and functioning of life, to the fundamental nature of reality, to the origins of the universe itself. Not a single philosopher has even vaguely contributed meaningful answers to any of those questions, but scientists have either answered or pushed back the boundaries of our ignorance far enough that we know the basic shapes of the answers.

          I’ll no more grant a philosopher credit for any of that than I’d grant the Church credit for the Enlightenment, even though they’re proud to claim credit.

          b&

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:03 am | Permalink

            Masturbatory flailings – it is such an odd image but so poetic. I’ll borrow that phrase one day!

            I agree with you re: empiracism and I find it odd that I am often in arguments defending it.

          • David Sepkoski
            Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

            This is a really naive definition of what science is–it sounds like something someone in the Royal Society in the 17th century would say. Are you really arguing that the only legitimate way of doing science is to do lab work? There are loads and loads of scientists who don’t perform experiments, or “get their hands dirty,” or in fact even work with real entities. What about, say, ecological modeling? Is that science? Some of the paleontologists I work with never touch a fossil–they analyze databases and run simulations. Are they not scientists?

            Really, these definitions you’re using are complete straw men. Can’t you see that?

            • Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

              Erm…hate to break it to you, but you’re missing the point, very spectacularly.

              Of course there’s no need for the same person to wear all the hats — for one person to do the observation and analysis. And it’s been ages since that’s been done. Just look at the paper for the Higgs, with its thousand-odd co-authors.

              But don’t for a moment think that there aren’t empirical observations at the heart of all the disciplines you mention, and that the meaningful stuff coming out of the disciplines is the rational analysis of those observations.

              Cheers,

              b&

      • ACuriousMind
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

        Ben,

        I think you are thoroughly underestimating the value of philosophy in an empiricist’s world view. You say “We don’t need philosophy to know that there is great utility in empiricism.”, but what, exactly, is empirical? You need an epistemological framework in which you define what is real, what is true (or rather, what is false) and so on. You need to decide whether classical logic is valid in all cases (Such as, for distinct states A and B of an object, is it always fully in state A or fully in state B? Is there a middle between A and not(A)?), this will heavily affect your interpretation and formulation of modern physics. You need a stance on reductionism, such as whether or not emergent properties of systems are always reducible to their working on a finer scale. Is mathematics a way of describing the world or its fundamental way of working? One can go on like this for hours, showing that even in the relatively narrow scope of “empiricism”, there are a lot of question to muse about which have definite impact on the way in which we see the world, but which are not decidable by empricism itself.
        This is philosophy done properly – within the framework of what is already known, seek out questions that may unravel a more fundamental property of that which is known. Empiricism without any kind of philosophy would merely be a collection of facts. No guide as to how to craft theories from observations, nothing about validating personal experience by testing it for intersubjectivity, no way to state precisely why empricial truth is superior to other truths. Not to begin with the whole discussion of justified true beliefs, and whether or not they constitute knowledge even if they contain nothing but an accidental observation.
        You can do science without touching philosophy, but it is like being an atheist simply because you were never taught to believe in a god – you are right, but you do not know why, and it is not your merit that you are.

        • Posted May 1, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

          You need an epistemological framework in which you define what is real, what is true (or rather, what is false) and so on. You need to decide whether classical logic is valid in all cases (Such as, for distinct states A and B of an object, is it always fully in state A or [....]

          Still missing the point.

          How do you know what the right answers are to all those questions you raised?

          You test things, see which ones actually work.

          That’s what empiricism is.

          You see, you don’t decide whether classical logic is the best model for modern physics. Physics simply is. If you want to know which logical system is best suited to describing it, you’re going to have to examine the real world and see how it actually behaves.

          Your philosophical declarations of which logical system is “best” are utterly meaningless. But the results from an experiment will give you a far better understanding of what reality really is.

          That applies up and down the line. Math, even — it’s not philosophy that informs us that 1 + 1 = 2; it’s the observation that if you pick one apple, and then you pick another apple, you now have two apples. Either your philosophy and your math can cope with one apple and one apple being two apples, in which case you might be able to put it to some use, or it can’t, in which case it’s even more useless than most philosophy.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • ACuriousMind
            Posted May 1, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

            I began writing a response to this. And then every argument that I tried to write down dissolved as I tried to imagine your response to it.
            I have to thank you for making me realize that a radical reduction of everything true to the question of whether it conforms to observation or not really seems not to need any other basis than itself. I always thought it neceassary to first go about questions of intersubjectivity, of real vs. imagined perceptions, or other classic epistemological problem, but I think I never really tried to disconnect the scientific approach from its historical philosophical freight.
            One minor quibble though: This radical approach is itself an epistemology, whether you like it or not, and thus part of philosophy. You may insist that this is all philosophy one ever needs, but it still remains part of it.

            • Posted May 1, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

              You’re welcome — glad to help!

              …but I do think you’ve still got that one more tie to cut: is it really philosophy to simply do more of what works and not do more of what doesn’t work?

              It might also help to look at it another way. An astrologer can, in one sense, very legitimately claim that a NASA scientist doing orbital calculations and thus predicting where Mars will be at some point in the future is doing astrology — and the most important, fundamental part of astrology, to boot.

              But isn’t it still deeply insulting to said NASA scientist to go and proclaim that, whether she likes it or not, she’s thus an astrologer when it comes right down to it, and astronomy is still properly considered dependent upon astrology and maybe even an actual subset of it?

              The reality, of course, is that astrology is really bad astronomy…and philosophy is really bad science.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • ACuriousMind
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

                Alright, for epistemology, metaphysics and all other subsets musing about truth and reality of any kind, I’m inclined to agree.

                What, then, to make of moral philosophy?
                Surely, the “oughts” of any moral system cannot be derived from what “is” – empricism and science have nothing to say here beyond delivering the basis upon which those morals may be built. But the theory of justice from Rawls is as compatible with empiricism as the cold utiliarism of Bentham.

                What of analytic philosophy concerned with language and thought?
                Even fully accepting that thoughts are purely the subjective impressions of material processes, it may still be worthwhile or interesting to understand how these impressions are structured, as they make up our very selves, would it not?

                What of logic and its applications in information science?
                Well, for that one I’m ready to fully incorporate it into mathematics, and drop branding it as philosophy, but somehow am feeling a bit queasy about that.

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

                “Moral philosophy” is a half-assed and really bad attempt at what ethicists have long since moved past.

                Look at what real ethicists, especially those in the medical profession, concern themselves with: patient outcomes as measured by survival and remission rates, patient satisfaction as measured by surveys, that sort of thing. And it’s all pure empirical analysis of objective data.

                Similarly, actual linguists are doing just fine analyzing language without the help of philosophers. And cognitive neurology is perhaps the most exciting branch of medicine these days and so far in advance of what the philosophers are playing at it’s not even funny.

                And you’re right. Logic, especially as used in the information sciences, is again utterly devoid of philosophy. Ask any programmer what use philosophy in writing code and they’ll either look at you cross-eyed or think you’re talking about the latest fad in corporate management (extreme programming, brogramming, whatever).

                Whatever its origins and intentions, philosophy got lost in the dust along with astrology and theology and alchemy and the rest at the dawn of the Enlightenment when empiricism finally truly took hold.

                Cheers,

                b&

        • Jimbo
          Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

          This is exactly right. Philosophy (to me) is simply the application of mathematics and logic to words. Antonyms, forinstance, are truly mathematically opposite if words are to mean anything.

          Using logic and reason (philosophy if you like) is merely the first step in science–the hypothesis. All hypotheses are, in principle, rooted in observation (here, I would include instruments as a substitute for eyesight) or a prediction based on experience of past observation. Where philosophy utterly fails is that many hypothetical and logical explanations (hypotheses) for ‘why’ can be constructed in the human mind but those that don’t map onto the real world really are complete bullshit. When hypotheses do map onto the world, they become theories and the philosopher becomes a de facto scientist.

          All theory, in the end, MUST comport with observation to represent what is true. How could it be otherwise?

      • onkelbob
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        It’s bullshit.

        Bea Arthur agrees

      • Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

        Ben Goren,

        We appear to differ on the definition of philosophy so clearly we will not be able to agree.

        What is next, you call mathematics a joke because calculus is really not mathematics but science?

        • Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

          Perhaps you could offer up your definition of philosophy as a starting point.

          Personally, I’ve yet to encounter one that isn’t meaningless (i.e., that essentially reduces to encompass all of every academic discipline) or worthless (“the study of the Nature of Truth” or some other type of bullshit deepity).

          But maybe you’ll surprise me….

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

            Well yes, in a way it does encompass every type of knowledge because it includes the study of how to produce knowledge. What is so difficult about it? Again, you would not have the same problem with realizing that all calculation is math even while scientists are also happily using math. There is no contradiction.

            For practical purposes, my personal classification is this: Everything that deals with empirical knowledge about the concrete universe around us is science. Mere abstract concepts, formal logic and things that necessarily have to be true or false no matter what the universe actually contains aren’t because those things have no empirical content. The boundary of philosophy against math and science is of course a bit fuzzy but for the moment I would have no problem assigning to it all non-empirical and non-mathematical deliberations.

            An example that I have used over at Pigliucci’s blog to argue that science can address the god question, you could reject the existence of married bachelors by pointing out that the concept contains an internal contradiction or by doing a thorough empirical study and coming up with zero observations of married bachelors. In the first case, you would categorically conclude that they don’t exist, in the second case you could conclude tentatively that they don’t (you reasonably expect you would have found one by now if they existed, but hey, perhaps one will turn up in the future). In the first case, you have used philosophy, in the second case, science.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      I think that is merely eager pattern search. If one really wants to extend philosophy to everything (and it seems to me that was the initial idea of the field), including empiricism, it can be done so because it is so flexible. Precisely in the same way that you can point at anything and claim “godsdidit”.

      And precisely as religion it means that philosophy is by its nature utterly powerless.

      Which gets me back to the outsider’s test. It is really all one need in these cases. (In case it isn’t obvious, science passes such a test – the usual notion of usefulness is the electronics know how involved in a laptop.)

      Nitpick: “Circular reasoning” is perfectly empirically valid, even necessary.

      That is how we make observations say, by testing for events within an interval decided at any time. (Could be pre as well as post observation.) The events specify the interval, and the interval (rather the intended observation) specifies the interesting events.

      Correlations are other examples of useful circularity, et cetera et cetera.

      It is dynamics that breaks circularity, but we can’t do without it.

      I think this is yet another case where philosophers have confused empiricists. The problem, as Goren mentions later, seems to be that philosophy is at its base anti-scientist, trying to fit some preexisting dogma over observations.

  13. Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Sarvodaya.

  14. Baobab
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    Two important points:

    (1) “The 27% of people who see mind as largely non-physical is a disturbing figure. That goes against everything that neurobiology has told us, and shows that not all philosophers are on board with science.”

    The conclusion here definitely does not follow from the statistic reported. Non-physicalism about the mind (and thus reality) takes many forms, *only a few of which* oppose the best current cognitive science, neuroscience, etc. In fact, David Chalmers could hardly be a bigger advocate of science, yet he’s become famous for advocating a form of dualism. His form of dualism is *not* substance dualism, which is the philosophical position that underpins the notion of an immortal soul — a soul that can float free of the body. Chalmers’ position is incredibly sophisticated and highly scientifically-informed; yet his conclusion is that the universe fundamentally consists of not one kind of thing, but two. I really encourage people to read his book; although I’m agnostic on the issue at the moment, his arguments are extremely cogent at the very least!

    I wish Bourget and Chalmers had asked “IF you are a non-physicalist, what sort of non-physicalism do you accept?” I strongly suspect that virtually no philosophers would have responded: “Substance dualism.” Swinburne is in a tiny — and shrinking — minority here. Instead, most would probably have answered “property dualism,” or something of the sort, which is the kind of dualism that’s definitely not anti-science.

    (2) Dr. Coyne didn’t highlight #25: 75.1% of philosophers are scientific realists. This is pretty extraordinary: there was a huge movement last century toward anti-realism in science: the idea that scientific theories don’t *really* describe what reality is like and how it works. This position was held both by people who liked science (the positivists) and people who didn’t (those of the postmodern persuasion). Almost no scientists hold it, though, with few exceptions: Victor Stenger, for instance, is an anti-realist about science. Anyway, it’s pretty fascinating to me that the pendulum has swung the other direction, and a large majority of philosophers think our picture of reality *actually does* correspond to the facts about this strange universe in which we find ourselves.

    Finally, it’s worth mentioning that I think there’s a huge danger in getting excited about philosophers being atheists. This sounds way too much like one is just routing for a team. The fact is that *what* beliefs people accept matter much, much less than *why* people accept those beliefs. It’s quite possible for one to become an atheist for epistemically non-respectable reasons. One could become an atheist out of faith, or for social conformity reasons, or because “Richard Dawkins was such a dashing young man!” Thus, what matters to me is that the educated class works to get people to think critically about their beliefs, to respect expertise, to care about the facts. This is what matters, not that a growing number of people are averring the non-existence of God. In my view, thinking critically (ETC) *will indeed* lead one away from religion and toward faith. But this is only a happy side-effect of something much, much more important: putting the “why” of belief before the “what” — i.e., reasons over content, whether that content be “I believe in God” or “I think God is utter nonsense.”

    (PS. My apologies for any sloppy, rushed writing here. :-)

    • Robert Bray
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      No apology necessary: I like the notion of ‘routing for a team.’ Someone needs to know where the team is going and how to get there. Otherwise, how could the visiting team ‘win in a rout’?

      • Baobab
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

        LOL. Thanks for picking out the substantive part of my comment!

        • Robert Bray
          Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

          But, Sir, ‘rout’ is a substantive.
          No, Baobab, I was just funnin’ ya. I learned something important from your comment, not having known about ‘property dualism.’ This is an area of philosophical esotericism altogether new to me. Thanks.

    • Sastra
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      I didn’t think that Jerry was just “rooting for a team” when he triumphantly pointed out that philosophers — the people who think about thinking — tend to reject the existence of God. It’s pretty much understood that this number is significant not because it is a large group, but because it is a significant group.

      After all, how many professional philosophers do we know?

      • Baobab
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

        My point was this: I hear atheists all the time say “We need to get more people to abandon religion; we need more atheists in the world!” I think this is very, deeply misguided. The thing people should be focusing on is, rather, *encouraging people to be more rational.* The content of beliefs has absolutely nothing to do with this. A world full of atheists may *or may not* be a better world than the one we currently have. But a world full of people who care about the facts, who understand basic epistemology, who have some sense of the epistemic importance of evidence and how it relates to a belief (what is a belief anyway?), etc. would almost certainly be a better one. In sum: there’s no point in focusing on what people believe (in this case, atheism); what matters is *why* people believe whatever they belief: are their beliefs rational or irrational? If professional philosophers are accepting atheism more and more simply because, say, atheism is now a part of the intellectual culture, the world isn’t getting any better. What we want — indeed, need — are people who accept atheism because the facts more strongly support it than the alternative hypotheses.

        • Sastra
          Posted May 1, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

          Agree.

  15. peter
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    “12. Logic: classical 51.6%; non-classical 15.4%; other 33.1%.”

    Perhaps there is not much interest here in this one, but, on the other hand, it may have something to do with some of the other less acceptable opinions in the survey.

    I’d guess that the 48.4% of the 2nd and 3rd categories are nearly all some form of modal logic. If provability logic and the applications to theoretical computer science like dynamic logic are excluded for being merely analogous to modal logic symbolically (and they are not things that philosophers have much to do with, though Boolos was classified as a philosopher by MIT!), I know of no application of modal logic which has any convincing value at all. And I would be interested to hear that view challenged by someone who claims to have a convincing example.

    • Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      Some days you can almost convince me that if one could do all of math and hence all of factual science _de novo_ that a paraconsistent logic would be the way to go. There’s a fair number of people in that camp. I do agree about modal logic – its philosophical uses are depressing up until recently. The recent epistemic logics might actually go somewhere, but they are formal epistemology, not logic.

      Also, where is the “don’t know” answer?

      • peter
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 4:44 am | Permalink

        I’m afraid that my non-humble opinion is that the “fair number of people” are all philosophers who have the one example, supposedly using uncertainly in quantum mechanics, and having no other instance that might give one the impression that paraconsistent logic, and so-called ‘inconsistent mathematics’ have anything to contribute. All those philosophers evidently understand microphysics better than Feynmann ever did. I still put them with the modal logicians, as doing worthless word-spinning, till convinced otherwise.

        • Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

          The *arguments* (some of them) in favour of paraconsistent logic are sometimes pretty bad, but that’s true of almost any position. The way I see it is that classical logic endorses ex falso quodlibet, and I can’t understand how the false and (stronger) inconsistent theories and hypotheses are supposed to be protected from their irrelevant and false consequences if that’s the case. Newton’s presentation of the calculus, for example. Or just a game of Sudoku – an example a friend of mine who works on these or related matters sometimes thought might help – if one makes a mistake, only *specific* consequences seem to follow, not all consequences whatever. This has profound consequences for matters like thought experiments. For example, Twin Earth type experiments describe a self-contradictory situation if pressed with a few additional facts. (Dihydrogen monoxide has to be both the substance of the lakes and rivers of TE for biochemical and not, by Putnam’s hypothesis. More details if needded can be provided.)

    • Posted May 1, 2013 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

      Modal logic and temporal logic are used in the computer aided verification community to model and prove properties of procedures. But perhaps that is what you meant by applications in theoretical computer science?

      Other non-classical “logics”, such as intuitionistic logic, have applications in the theory of types in several modern functional programming languages.

      • peter
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 5:00 am | Permalink

        Right, those applications by computer people of formal systems resembling standard mathematical logic are quite often very useful, as I’d implied re modal.

        But we’re talking about ‘What’s the correct logic?’ in the minds of philosophers, so that they can proceed to do their ‘Axiomatic Ontology’ and the like—and, for example, publish 3 lengthy papers on the ontological argument, stretched over 18 years, without realizing that the total contribution is that assuming ’13=13 implies god exists’ allows one to conclude that ‘god exists’! (The first two papers had seemed to need additional assumptions, in trying to convert Anselm’s writing to symbols.)

        • Posted May 2, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

          Oh, I see :). Godel’s infamous “proof” that God exists strikes yet again.

          What I find strange is that there seem to be claims in the literature that Godel himself believed his “proof”. I wonder how that came about.

          • peterr
            Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:04 am | Permalink

            (Notice that I have transmogrified from Peter to Peterr. Ben had written “..there you go again…” responding to someone he thought was me, but wasn’t, so it seems sensible to use a name less likely to be accidently duplicated. It is amusing that my other posts here are more-or-less ‘anti-philosophers’, whereas the other Peter seemed the opposite.)

            I wouldn’t want to speculate what was in Godel’s mind about the interpretation of this.

            In the last 20 or 30 years there have been a number of (ignored by most) followups on this, mostly modal though the one I mentioned is not, despite having its own peculiar use of an ontological attitude, and claiming to be what Anselm really meant.

            The topic is not very important, but I felt impelled and had the time to look this up in detail, and do not think I missed anything. It is formal fiddling with various axioms and several of the many inequivalent flavours of (modal mostly) logic, which, in my non-humble opinion, has significance only to the careers, tenure etc., of the philosophers writing the papers.

          • Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

            Even the best of us reasoning-wise does fall prey to idee fixe, and Goedel was already (for whatever reason) a theist.

  16. Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    As Ben mentioned above, some other reasons for not pulling the switch include:

    – taking a responsible role in the events, ie. yes more people might die, but if you touch the switch then you killed someone (I suspect anyone using this excuse would have a religious bias – god’s will vs. breaking a commandment)
    – recognizing that there are other possible options (eg. You could yell a warning in either case)
    – you might not be able to react to the situation and make a decision in time in real life (eg. How do you know which way the switch is set?)
    – Fate – everyone dies eventually, and how do you know the one person isn’t going to make a greater contribution to the world than the other group combined?

    No, I don’t accept any of these, but suggest them as other possible reasons that philosophers might use to justify their answers.

    • Kevin
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

      If you touch the switch, you’ll be indicted for manslaughter at the least, first degree murder and/or terrorism at worst.

      If you don’t touch the switch, you’re an innocent bystander who watched a terrible tragedy. And get to be on the nightly news.

      Don’t touch the switch.

      • Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

        I sincerely hope that these are meant to be jokes.

        • Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

          If there’s one lesson that anybody who takes seriously the trolley problem absolutely must learn, stat, it’s this:

          THOU SHALT NOT FUCK WITH CRITICAL SAFETY EQUIPMENT WITHOUT PROPER AUTHORIZATION, MOST ESPECIALLY IN A CRISIS SITUATION.

          I mean, seriously.

          What makes you think that you’re even remotely qualified to make such decisions?

          How do you know that the switch isn’t already in the proper position? How do you know that there isn’t a remote operator already poised to derail the train in a skillful manner? How do you know that it’s not part of a movie set with no real danger to anybody until you start fucking with things? How do you know that there isn’t some even worse disaster (say, a chemical bomb) that’ll be set off if you “save” the children?

          The answer, of course, is that either you’re a trained and authorized professional whose job it is to know all those things and react accordingly or you’re some random schmuck who UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD EVER EVEN THINK ABOUT TOUCHING THE SWITCH.

          Call 911. Jump and scream and shout to get the people off the tracks. Help the investigators figure out what happened after the fact.

          But don’t even pretend to yourself that you’re in any way responsible for all the multiple interlocking layers of gross incompetence and criminal negligence because you didn’t touch the switch.

          Unless, of course, you touch the switch, in which case you’re now an accomplice at best, if not an actual mass murderer.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

            It’s not real, Ben. It’s a thought experiment. All the other variables are held constant (which usually goes without saying).

            • Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

              So? Milgram’s experiment wasn’t real, either.

              Why is it that everybody but the philosophers actually learned something from Milgram?

              b&

            • Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:32 am | Permalink

              Ben, you appear to have very concrete thinking. If I were a psychiatrist I’d have to ask if you could explain the phrase “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Do you realize it is not actually a comment on lawns and colors?

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

                Of course.

                And if philosophy was concerned only with poetry, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. Hell, I’d probably engage in it a fair amount, at least as an audience member.

                But philosophy is pretending to run with the big boys and produce meaningful, real results. In this particular case, you yourself are flogging it as the go-to place for ethics.

                And, if philosophy really wants to play with the big boys, it can’t keep falling down go boom because its diapers are poopy, which is exactly what it’s done with the Trolly Car fiasco.

                Either philosophy is a dilettante’s game where we can smile and nod and nothing meaningful comes out of it, or it’s going to be held to the same standards as the rest of science…in which case it will and should get viciously ripped to shreds the instant it shows even a hint of weakness.

                What, you think philosophers get a pass that Pons and Fleischmann didn’t?

                Cheers,

                b&

        • Gary W
          Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

          How do you know that the switch isn’t already in the proper position? How do you know that there isn’t a remote operator already poised to derail the train in a skillful manner? How do you know that it’s not part of a movie set with no real danger to anybody until you start fucking with things? How do you know that there isn’t some even worse disaster (say, a chemical bomb) that’ll be set off if you “save” the children?

          You don’t. But absent evidence that any of those possibilities is actually true, they’re not reasons to fail to throw the switch.

          Call 911.

          There isn’t enough time. The trolley will hit the people tied to the track within seconds.

          Jump and scream and shout to get the people off the tracks.

          They can’t get off the tracks. They’re tied to the tracks.

          But don’t even pretend to yourself that you’re in any way responsible for all the multiple interlocking layers of gross incompetence and criminal negligence because you didn’t touch the switch.

          You’re responsible for your failure to throw the switch. Your failure to act caused five people to die instead of just one.

          • Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

            Congratulations, Gary.

            Every time a Nazi SS officer demanded of a father that he must pick if it would be his wife or his daughter who would be shot?

            You’ve just blamed each and every one of them for the deaths of their loved ones. And not the monsters who pulled the triggers.

            How even you could blame the person in your hypothetical horror fantasy for not throwing the switch, as opposed to whoever tied the people to the tracks…

            ..really, Gary. This is a profoundly new low, even for you.

            b&

            • Gary W
              Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

              Every time a Nazi SS officer demanded of a father that he must pick if it would be his wife or his daughter who would be shot?

              Incomprehensible.

              You’ve just blamed each and every one of them for the deaths of their loved ones. And not the monsters who pulled the triggers.

              I haven’t said anything about dilemmas involving Nazis murdering people.

              How even you could blame the person in your hypothetical horror fantasy for not throwing the switch, as opposed to whoever tied the people to the tracks…

              The person confronted with the situation is responsible for his action or failure to act in response to that situation, regardless of the responsibility of whoever created the situation in the first place. If you see an abandoned baby lying in the middle of the road and refuse to move it out of danger, you are responsible for your failure to act even though someone else is responsible for putting the baby in danger in the first place. The same principle applies to your failure to act in the trolley situation.

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

                The person confronted with the situation is responsible for his action or failure to act in response to that situation, regardless of the responsibility of whoever created the situation in the first place.

                So, according to you, when a Stormtrooper tells the prisoner that he must shoot either his wife or his daughter or else they’ll both be shot, it’s the prisoner who takes responsibility for the murder of his family, not the responsibility of the Stormtrooper.

                I know you, Gary. You’re going to continue to defend this truly evil position of yours, because that’s the type of person you really are. Feel free to do so without further interference from me.

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

                So, according to you, when a Stormtrooper tells the prisoner that he must shoot either his wife or his daughter or else they’ll both be shot, it’s the prisoner who takes responsibility for the murder of his family, not the responsibility of the Stormtrooper.

                No, the prisoner is responsible for whatever action he takes or fails to take in response to that dilemma, but the stormtrooper is responsible for any murders.

                On your account, if you leave the abandoned baby in the middle of the road to be struck by a car, instead of moving it to safety, you bear no responsibility for its death, even though you could easily have saved it. I very much doubt most people would agree with you.

              • Robert
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

                Wait, is the baby tied to the road? (However that would work) Cause you without adding a bunch of BS your baby scenario is no analogous.

              • Gary W
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

                Wait, is the baby tied to the road?

                No, it’s just lying there.

                Cause you without adding a bunch of BS your baby scenario is no analogous.

                Huh? Why? Ben Goren claims that you have no responsibility for the outcome of your choice in the trolley scenario because you didn’t create the situation. If that’s true, why would you have any responsibility for the death of the baby if you failed to move it to safety?

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

                Robert, Gary is an habitual liar who can’t even keep track of his own lies. Up above, you’ll see he wrote at 10:23 am:

                Call 911.

                There isn’t enough time. The trolley will hit the people tied to the track within seconds.

                Jump and scream and shout to get the people off the tracks.

                They can’t get off the tracks. They’re tied to the tracks.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

                I’m not lying. You’re totally confused, as usual.

              • Robert
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

                Hopefully this is understandable despite the ensting problem at this level.

                Gary, in the trolley example the people are tied to the tracks. In the baby example the baby was not. This is not just relevant, it’s sufficiently important that it’s dishonest to assume Ben’s answer to the second problem would be the same as the first simply because he didn’t add a caveat along the lines of “if a problem comes around later where, say, a baby, is NOT tied down but in an otherwise similar predicament I might act differently”.

                So, baby analogy fails.

              • Gary W
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

                Gary, in the trolley example the people are tied to the tracks. In the baby example the baby was not. This is not just relevant …

                Huh? Why do you think it’s relevant?

                If you prefer, you may assume the baby is tied to the road. It makes no difference, since the baby is in danger of being struck by a car whether it’s tied down or not.

                Do you think you have no responsibility for the outcome of your choice, in either the trolley scenario or the baby-in-the-road scenario? If so, why?

              • Robert
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

                It’s not a simple question. It’s not a “yes, I’m responsible”, “No I’m not” answer. Responsibility better be very well defined here and I doubt it’s sufficiently well defined for everyone to give the answer they would give if they actually found themselves in such a ridiculously contrived situation.

                Most importantly, it’s something that can be better answered by neuroscience, psychology and other empirical disciplines than by mental masturbation.

              • Gary W
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

                I’m using the word “responsibility” in its conventional sense. Presumably, you do believe that, in general, people bear some responsibility for their choices, especially choices that result in clear and foreseeable harm to other people.

                So, again, do you think you have no responsibility for the outcome of your choice, in either the trolley scenario or the baby-in-the-road scenario? If so, why?

              • Robert
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

                You haven’t sufficiently defined the word for me to say yes or no.

                I do have an answer but it’s largely irrelevant to the discussion here.

                My answer and anything you could try to glean from the thought experiment would be more accurately identified by other disciplines.

                We could discover whether I view this as a question of responsibilty or not. Whether I applied a “but for my actions or lack thereof” definition or whether I acknowledged I could do nothing and was powerless to help. Whether either of those definitions changed the amount of guilt I felt or the answer I gave.

                And millions of other things.

                All could be determined by other disciplines.

                So in that sense this sort of philosophical question is very much like religion in the way ben suggests – it does nothing we can’t do with other tools and there’s no reason to carry its baggage around just cause we might happen to stumble on the same answer that the verifiable discipline would.

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

                How?

                /@

              • Gary W
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

                You haven’t sufficiently defined the word for me to say yes or no.

                You seriously don’t know the conventional meaning of the word “responsible”?

                Here:
                Responsible: Answerable or accountable, as for something within one’s power, control, or management; having a capacity for moral decisions and therefore accountable; capable of rational thought or action.

                Do you think you have no responsibility for the outcome of your choice, in either the trolley scenario or the baby-in-the-road scenario? If so, why?

                My answer and anything you could try to glean from the thought experiment would be more accurately identified by other disciplines.

                What other disciplines? How would we determine your answer using these other disciplines?

              • Robert
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

                To try and answer Gary and Ant both briefly and at the same time, brain activity could determine how you felt.

                I think the reply below that separates culpability from responsibility addresses Gary’s questions as well.

                People would feel guilty and responsible for the deaths regardless of the outcome, but they wouldn’t be culpable.

                the thought experiment does not observe anythign that psychology and neuroscience can’t observe.

              • Gary W
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

                To try and answer Gary and Ant both briefly and at the same time, brain activity could determine how you felt.

                I’m not sure why you would expect measurements of “brain activity” to be a more reliable guide to people’s moral beliefs than simply asking them how they would respond. Why not do both? The more data, the better.

                I think the reply below that separates culpability from responsibility addresses Gary’s questions as well.

                I don’t know what reply you’re referring to.

                People would feel guilty and responsible for the deaths regardless of the outcome, but they wouldn’t be culpable.

                Why wouldn’t they be culpable for deaths that they could easily have prevented?

        • Jimbo
          Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

          Awesome, and funny as hell!

  17. eric
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    I’m puzzled by the 7.6% who wouldn’t flip the switch? What’s the basis for that judgment?

    I’m just guessing, but maybe they’re arguing that there is no moral culpability in nonintervention. Right now I am not-giving to hunger relief in Africa; does that make me morally culpable for deaths by starvation in Africa? If your answer is ‘no’, then using the same logic, if I not-pull the trolly switch, I’m not responsible for the trolly deaths that ensue either.

    And what are the “other” solutions suggested by the remaining 24.2%.

    These sorts of toy problems are highly constrained – typically unrealistically constrained. Its perfectly reasonable to respond to such problems by objecting to the highly constrained nature of the problem itself.

    Loved both the teletransporter and zombie problem. Maybe they should be combined: if you teletransport a zombie, is it still undead?

    • TJR
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:53 am | Permalink

      I’d probably be too busy running up to them shouting “get off the f**cking track!” to even notice the switch.

    • Gary W
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      I’m just guessing, but maybe they’re arguing that there is no moral culpability in nonintervention.

      I doubt it. I doubt they’d argue that, under normal circumstances, there’s no moral culpability when a baby dies because its mother fails to feed it, for example.

      Its perfectly reasonable to respond to such problems by objecting to the highly constrained nature of the problem itself.

      No, that’s just evasion.

      • Jimbo
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

        No it’s not. It’s an outright rejection of being forced to make an immoral decision, analogous to answering the stormtrooper “Eff you Nazi scum!” Maybe he shoots both family members and me but then who is responsible for murder?

        This is not a good analogy to the Trolley problem because the Nazi or mother in the examples above can be the villian whereas the trolley car cannot. But then who tied those people to the track?

        • Gary W
          Posted May 1, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

          No it’s not. It’s an outright rejection of being forced to make an immoral decision,

          You can’t avoid making a decision. If you decide to do nothing, five people will die. If you had thrown the switch, only one person would have died. Why do you not bear some responsibility for the deaths you could have prevented by throwing the switch?

          • Jimbo
            Posted May 1, 2013 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

            I will admit that inaction can lead to suffering which is why being a pacifist can be an immoral position. But culpability? Who tied those people to the track?

            I agree with Ben Goren that these are hopelessly contrived scenarios (you just ‘know’ all five will be killed, you can’t yell out for them to move, they’re tied down, you can’t do anything else to slow the trolley e.g. tell a nearby motorist to drive in front of the trolley).

            Let me ask you this: if I switch the track, killing 1 person but saving 5, am I a hero or a murderer?

            Try this: if a pilot’s engine fails over LA and he crashes his plane into a narrow street (sacrificing himself and wife) thereby saving 12 people in a house just 10 yards away, did he do the right thing? We might argue: yes, he’s a selfless hero. But he did kill his wife (maybe she didn’t consent to self-sacrifice either). What if everything was identical but he missed the street and killed himself, wife, and 12 people in the house? That’s a tragedy though no fault of his own. What if he intended to hit the street but hit the house instead, killing 12 but saving himself and wife? That OK? What if he thought the house (though likely occupied) would break the fall of the plane, he crashed into it as planned to save his wife and himself but killed 12 people in the house? That OK too?

            What if he never really had control of the plane in the last 2 seconds of descent because a cable had broken? The real world IS far more complicated than trollies and tied up people.

            • Posted May 1, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

              Exactly.

              And I know it’ll either come as a complete shock to Gary or that he won’t believe it, but pilots are actually trained in how to react in such situations — and, more importantly, how to avoid winding up in those types of situations in the first place.

              The trolley problem is the moral equivalent of telling somebody that they’re sitting in the right (co-pilot) seat of an aircraft, about to land, when an alarm starts chanting, “airspeed, airspeed, airspeed.” But the pilot doesn’t seem concerned, so should they use the gun on the pilot, thus killing him but saving the passengers, or should they do nothing and thus be responsible for the deaths of all on board?

              …the problem being, of course, that an airspeed warning just before touchdown is not just normal, but lack of an airspeed warning right then is a sign of something bad about to happen….

              Same thing with the trolley problem. Railroads these days are generally computer-controlled. How, exactly, was Gary planning on flipping that switch? And how does he know how to read the track configuration in the first place?

              The answer, of course, is that he doesn’t, but the magical mystery thought experiment says he’s been gifted with that knowledge, and more, and we all know that we can’t even dare to question the assumptions behind those things….

              Cheers,

              b&

            • Posted May 1, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

              “Let me ask you this: if I switch the track, killing 1 person but saving 5, am I a hero or a murderer?”

              Exactly.

              /@

            • Robert
              Posted May 1, 2013 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

              Actually, all the questions you ask should be valid responses – would you not try those solutions if you were in that situation? Of course you would. The magical knowledge the thought experiment imbues you with is not something anyone engaging in the thought experiment can properly evaluate – you can tell someone they have this knowledge but they’ll still ask “what if this”.

              That shouldn’t be an indication they didn’t understand your scenario, that should be an indication that if they were actually in that scenarion AND had the best possible knowledge (including KNOWING that there was no alternative) they’d still be unconvinced that there wasn’t an alternative.

              Now what? Are they responsible because they made an effort to find a better alternative despite knowing there wasn’t one? They’ll certainly feel guilty, but is that the same?

          • Gary W
            Posted May 1, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

            I will admit that inaction can lead to suffering which is why being a pacifist can be an immoral position. But culpability? Who tied those people to the track?

            Yes, culpability. Why does the fact that someone else tied the people to the track mean that you are not culpable for failing to save them when you could easily have done so? If you came across a baby lying in a road where it was at grave risk of being struck by a car, do you also believe that you would not be culpable for failing for movie it to safety if you could do so quickly and easily at no risk to yourself?

            I agree with Ben Goren that these are hopelessly contrived scenarios (you just ‘know’ all five will be killed, you can’t yell out for them to move, they’re tied down, you can’t do anything else to slow the trolley e.g. tell a nearby motorist to drive in front of the trolley).

            You can yell out, but it won’t do any good because they’re tied to the track. You can’t do anything to slow down the trolley. There are no nearby motorists. You don’t know for certain that they’ll be killed if you do nothing, but that’s irrelevant. In real life, you don’t know for certain what the consequences of your actions or failure to act will be, either. That doesn’t mean you have no basis for making a decision.

            Let me ask you this: if I switch the track, killing 1 person but saving 5, am I a hero or a murderer?

            Neither, in my view. But you did the right thing.

            • Jimbo
              Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

              It’s pretty obvious in the moral calculus that acting to save 5 people over 1 person is the obvious answer, but so what? What if, by the power of the prescient thought experiment, you KNEW that the 5 people on the track comprised a chain gang of 5 psychopaths, shackled to the track for public safety, and inprisoned for life for having raped and murdered children and young girls. The individual on the other track is a brilliant neurosurgeon, destined to save thousands of lives throughout his illustrious career and assuage untold misery of patients and their families. How isn’t saving the one man vs. the five a guaranteed win in light of the moral calculus because again, you KNOW killing the five (who by definition can contribute essentially nothing to humanity while in prison) will result in saving approx. 12,000? Isn’t it about simple math? You can’t now claim: “I can’t know that guy on the track is a surgeon and will save 1000’s of lives!” Yes you can because it’s a precondition, a constraint, a “thought experiment,” and my prerogative as your interlocutor to grant you perfect knowledge. Will you throw the switch and “do the right thing”?

              By the way, your statistical rationale for killing one to save five has just been used to do the opposite: kill five to save one (and 12,000 in the future). So would you like to explain to yourself-of-five-minutes-ago why killing five people to save one is the moral thing to do? I hope this simple thought experiment doesn’t somehow imply that you (who I don’t know) are an immoral person or worse, capable of callously murdering people if you answered incorrectly. Notice that what I’m doing is acting like Goren’s stormtrooper. I fail to grasp how knowing your answer or even the rationale for your answer gives me any insight into your moral character. That’s because the question is stupid–the no-win scenario of morality.

            • Gary W
              Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

              It’s pretty obvious in the moral calculus that acting to save 5 people over 1 person is the obvious answer, but so what?

              So, it’s better to throw the switch than not throw it.

              What if … you KNEW that the 5 people on the track comprised a chain gang of 5 psychopaths … The individual on the other track is a brilliant neurosurgeon …

              Then the moral analysis may change. The point of the experiment is to discover people’s moral beliefs and reasoning regarding the treatment of other people in general, not when pitting psychopaths against brilliant neurosurgeons.

              • Jimbo
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

                Then I fail to see any dilemma at all. The correct answer is “always act to save the greater number of people”

                So why is that profound? It’s obvious and intuitive requires no discussion at all.

            • Gary W
              Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

              By the way, Jimbo, you still haven’t explained why you think people are not culpable to failing to act to save lives, in situations where doing so would impose little or no risk or burden on the actor.

              I think your position here is quite bizarre. It is generally recognized that there is an ethical duty to rescue under such circumstances. In some jurisdictions, this duty may even be enforced by law. That is, you could be sued for damages or convicted of a crime for failing to render assistance to someone in need, especially when their life is at stake, when there is little or no risk to yourself. The fact that you did not create the dangerous situation that the other person is in does not absolve you of responsibility to help them.

              • Jimbo
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

                We agree actually. Of course people can be culpable for not acting to save lives. The trolley problem is simple: throw the switch, kill one, save five. What I object to (which is really the point Goren and I am making) is that these contrived scenarios don’t reveal much about a person’s moral instincts because they are so constrained.

                How about this. Would I switch the tracks? Yes. Would I throw a life preserver to a person swept into a river? Yes. Would I jump in after them? Maybe. Would I jump in front of a bus (risking my own life) to save a baby in a carriage that had rolled onto the street. Very likely. If the baby was mine? Without a doubt. Would I try to fight off a mugger with a gun who was sticking up an old lady? No, I would call the police. What if he was beating her up? Still no, call the police.

                So how exactly does my answer to the trolley problem give you any insight into the morality of my choices? I think the questions above are far more revealing about my morality than answering the trolley problem which sets up a lose-lose proposition (someone MUST die) that by definition makes me a murderer either way. What if I couldn’t get to the switch fast enough to change the tracks and five were killed? I’m responsible? What if I froze out of fear–was overwhelmed by the magnitude that somebody was going to die no matter what–and didn’t throw the switch? I’m responsible for five deaths through inaction? Is a cop who hesitates from fear in a gun battle that results in his partner being shot and killed culpable for his partners death? Why? Isn’t the person who shot the cop culpable?

              • Gary W
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

                What I object to (which is really the point Goren and I am making) is that these contrived scenarios don’t reveal much about a person’s moral instincts because they are so constrained.

                On the contrary, the whole POINT of the constraints is to isolate the effect of the difference that is under investigation. In the case of the trolley experiments, the difference is doing harm vs. allowing harm. In general, people seem to think that doing harm is worse than merely allowing harm to happen (failing to prevent it). Killing an innocent person is worse than failing to prevent an innocent person from being killed. What the trolley experiments reveal is that, under some circumstances at least, that moral belief can be reversed when more people would be expected to die from allowing harm than from doing harm. That’s why most people say they would throw the switch.

    • josh
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      A thought experiment is highly constrained for the same reason that a real world experiment is highly constrained: you want to control for the variables you aren’t testing.

      So it’s perfectly valid (in principle) to argue that the results of the thought experiment can’t be directly applied to a particular real world situation, such as starvation in a distant country, because other variables come into play. But you can’t just dismiss the thought experiment tout court on those grounds.

      • Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

        But you can and should dismiss a thought experiment if it’s both so far removed from reality as to be incoherent and yet it’s still used as part of a survey of subjects.

        For example, if you asked people if they would rather use a shovel or a shotgun to kill their boss so that the dragon will stop and eat him, thereby giving them time to escape, you yourself should probably be taken out and shot (unless, of course, you’re designing the newest violent fantasy video game).

        I can’t remember the last time I came across a philosophical “thought experiment” that wasn’t at that level of stupidity. Trolley cars, oracles, teleporters, zombies…the lot of them are just really bad plot devices from third-rate juvenile fiction.

        If you want a serious thought experiment designed to answer the types of questions philosophers like to pretend they’re addressing with the Trolley Car, consider an airliner pilot who loses all power while on direct final approach to LAX from the east at night. There’s not enough altitude / airspeed to reach the runway. The plane will crash into a densely populated area.

        First, what procedures should the pilot be trained to follow to minimize the destruction?

        Second, what procedures should the airline be required to follow to minimize the chances that this will happen in the first place? Maintenance checks, fuel consumption audits, restricted approach corridors, more?

        Third, what do emergency responders need to do to prepare for this sort of thing? Can crews reach the most likely affected areas in a timely manner? Do they have the equipment they need? What about training? Are there enough hospital beds, or a way to distribute the load amongst all the hospitals?

        Fourth, what do the accident investigators need to know to be able to determine not just the cause of the catastrophe but how to prevent similar ones from happening in the future?

        Once you move past the childish revenge fantasies, you discover that the real world is much more complex — so much so that everything the philosophers so obsessively dwell upon is truly irrelevant noise.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Gary W
          Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

          But you can and should dismiss a thought experiment if it’s both so far removed from reality as to be incoherent and yet it’s still used as part of a survey of subjects.

          What’s “incoherent” about the trolley thought experiment?

          • Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

            That untrained civilians wandering around unsupervised on an industrial job site have any business fucking around with critical safety equipment during a crisis, for starters.

            Ooh! I know!

            Let’s say you’re in an hospital in the middle of a zombie invasion, and one of the zombies just ate the surgeon’s braaaaaaaains! This was the most brilliant surgeon in the world, so he was doing a liver transplant with a pretty, young patient on the table to his left, and a braaaaaaaaaains trasnsplant on the ugly, fat patient on the table to his right. You just happened to walk by the OR as the zombie attacked, and the zombie ran away as soon as you poked your head in the door.

            So, now you’ve just picked up the scalpel and it’s up to you to finish where the surgeon left off, but you can only save one patient or the other. Which patient do you save?

            And no fair criticizing the setup because it’s a philosophical thought experiment and that kind of criticism isn’t allowed! Because it’s just a thought experiment!

            So which patient do you solve? Huh? Huh? Huh? And you have to choose between the pretty girl or the fat old guy — you’re not allowed to answer any other way because it’s a thought experiment and these are the only valid choices.

            But wait! There’s more! The fat ugly man has a 50% better chance of survival if you drain half of the pretty girl’s blood! But you can’t use the fat man’s blood to save the pretty girl because he’s blood type WTF and she’s type BBQ, and the transfusion only works the one way. Because it’s a thought experiment!

            …and people wonder why philosophy has such a bad reputation….

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Jimbo
              Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

              You’re killing me Ben! I’m laughing my a$$ off! What you say is true: the trolley car problem is contrived nonsense. ‘you can’t shout out to the people on the track, you know beforehand that all five people will die instead of be hurt, etc.’

              I do have a solution to the trolley car problem though if you’d like to hear it.

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

                Hey, if we’ve moved beyond taking this seriously and into the late night dorm room bullshit fest — by all means, have at it. And do you prefer your popcorn with or without butter and / or salt?

                b&

              • Jimbo
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

                Thanks for your thoughtful and hilarious posts today. OK, late night buttered popcorn, dorm room time:

                I’m in the Trolley Problem right next to the switch that decides the certain death (that’s convenient a priori knowledge of the future) of 5 people or 1. I would be inclined to ram a car into the trolley or find something to jam between the wheels or derail the trolley car. I would likely die trying to effect a different outcome. While this may sound like a copout, it is not. I choose not to “kill” 1 or 5 people but die trying to save them all in a selfless act.

                You correctly point out how contrived this scenario is and I agree (Who tied those people to the track so they couldn’t escape when I yelled to them? Who didn’t maintain the brakes on the trolley? How do I know for certain they will be killed?) This is analogous to your Stormtrooper story. When they demand “Choose who dies, your wife or daughter or both if you don’t answer in 5 seconds” I might answer “Eff you Nazi bastard–family we love each other forever” and he might kill my wife and daughter and even me.

            • Posted May 2, 2013 at 6:23 am | Permalink

              But wait! There’s more! The fat ugly man has a 50% better chance of survival if you drain half of the pretty girl’s blood! But you can’t use the fat man’s blood to save the pretty girl because he’s blood type WTF and she’s type BBQ, and the transfusion only works the one way. Because it’s a thought experiment!

              …and people wonder why philosophy has such a bad reputation….

              Or, because she’s blood type O and he’s blood type AB (ie universal donor and universal recipient)? You might want to get your science straight before criticizing philosophy here.

              Now, the reason your suggestion here is a really bad thought experiment is because it adds in a lot of details that don’t have any impact on the underlying question, or at least shouldn’t. For example, the zombie apocalypse seems irrelevant, as all that does is get you to the point where you are in a position to save a pretty young woman or an ugly fat man. And since those details are or at least ought to be irrelevant to a moral determination, this is a toss-up. I accept the assumption that in this case I could save one or the other — even if in real life I couldn’t — and so conclude that if you can decide based on those characteristics you are making an invalid decision; you ought not choose which should live or die based on attractiveness. Note that in the second leg of the trolley experiment it is not the case that we expect people to consider the fat person less worthy because they are fat, but just to make it plausible that pushing them in front of the train might stop it. And the studies have shown that, in fact, the majority of people consider the fat person’s life MORE valuable than in the other case, and not less.

          • Gary W
            Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

            That untrained civilians wandering around unsupervised on an industrial job site have any business fucking around with critical safety equipment during a crisis, for starters.

            This is an assertion about how the subject in the scenario ought to behave. Your claim was that the scenario is “incoherent.” I ask again: what’s “incoherent” about it?

            The obvious reason why the subject is justified (“has any business”) in throwing the switch (“fucking around with critical safety equipment”) is that it will save lives.

            • Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

              …and the subject knows that the lives will be saved…how, exactly? Because there’re hidden microwave dishes scattered on the job site secretly downloading months of training into the subject’s brain, telling him everything there is to know about the railroad industry?

              If that’s your definition of “coherent,” then it sure explains why you’re so far out in left field on everything that the goalie keeps trying to pass the fish to you

              Cheers,

              b&

            • Gary W
              Posted May 1, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

              …and the subject knows that the lives will be saved…how, exactly?

              Because throwing the switch will divert the trolley on to the other track.

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

                Never mind the subject.

                How do youknow what throwing the switch will do?

                Do you even know what a modern railroad switch looks like or how it’s operated?

                No need to answer — the fact that you keep banging on this drum makes clear that you don’t, that you’re trapped in a quaint Ye Olden Days of Railroading fantasy of rail operations.

                So if even you, armchair philosopher extraordinaire have no clue about how railroads actually work, what the hell makes you think some random schmuck on the ground is going to know anything?

                Wait — don’t tell me! Because that’s what the thought experiment says! The magical thought experiment, in which you’re magically given all the knowledge of the mechanics of rail operations and you’re magically transported into the midst of a crisis but you don’t know a single thing about the origins of the crisis or anything beyond what the experimental philosopher told you!

                And yet you still think you’re learning something with this bullshit.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

                How do youknow what throwing the switch will do?

                It’s stated in the description of the thought experiment.

                The magical thought experiment…

                It’s not a “magical” thought experiment.

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

                How do you know what throwing the switch will do?

                It’s stated in the description of the thought experiment.

                I rest my case.

                You’re completely ignorant of the subject, by your own admission, relying solely on the instructions of people so far removed from reality that they wouldn’t recognize a trolley switch if they tripped over it.

                And, yet you still think the experiment represents anything other than an excuse to fantasize about murdering smelly fat people.

                Damn.

                Just…damn.

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

                You’re completely ignorant of the subject, by your own admission

                No, I was informed of “the subject” from the description of the scenario. The “admission” you falsely attribute to me exists only in your mind.

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

                Seriously?

                You honestly think that what the authority figure told you is all you need to know to make these kinds of life-or-death decisions?

                Gary.

                You must.

                Absolutely must.

                Do nothing further in your life until you thoroughly study Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments, along with the Stanford Prison experiment.

                You are exactly the person who would have kept pressing the button after the subject because unresponsive.

                I know it doesn’t fit your own self-image, but that also means that you are no different from the Nazis who “just followed orders” when operating the gas chambers.

                And never mind the huge risk you pose to society. The level of gullibility you’re flaunting here is such that you’re so ripe for exploitation by every scam artist imaginable it truly hurts.

                Hell, for all I care, go ahead and become an expert on Milgram just so you can prove to me how worng I am.

                But I’m dead serious.

                Drop anything and everything else you’re doing, and study everything you can about Milgram’s work.

                All of it.

                Now.

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

                You honestly think that what the authority figure told you is all you need to know to make these kinds of life-or-death decisions?

                There is no “authority figure.” I’m not making an actual life-or-death decision, only a hypothetical one. The description of the scenario provides sufficient information to make that decision. Everyone here seems to understand that except you and Jimbo.

                Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments,along with the Stanford Prison experiment

                The Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments were completely different.

                And never mind the huge risk you pose to society.

                Huh? What “huge risk?”

        • Posted May 2, 2013 at 6:31 am | Permalink

          What makes you think that philosophers are actually purporting to answer those specific questions? In terms of morality, they are after the principles that we’d use to settle those specifics, and not those specific answers themselves.

          So, let’s make your thought experiment a little more interesting. Imagine that the pilot can save himself by hitting a populated area, or can save the lives of many others by putting it in a lake, but will almost certainly die if he does so. Is the pilot morally obligated to sacrifice their live for the lives of many others? Now, imagine that their family is in the plane with them. Are they obligated to sacrifice the lives of their family to save the lives of strangers, even though many more lives will be saved?

          And from this, we can see implications for your considerations. It seems to be clearly better for the airline and society to have a policy that mandates that the pilot sacrifice themselves and their family to reduce the number of casualties, all things being equal. But it might be immoral to ask or try to obligate someone to make that sacrifice. If it is, then the policy clearly shouldn’t try to mandate that even if it seems better for the airline and for society. So you can’t settle this until you settle that underlying principle, and once we tweak the intuitions in these cases we get into the really interesting discussions of why one option really should be chosen over another.

  18. vYzion
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Couldn’t the trolley be decided by coin-flip? That seems to fall in the “other” category.

    • neil
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      Flipping a coin would be irrational if you prefer one outcome over the other, and irrelevant if you are indifferent between the two outcomes. If you are indifferent between the two outcomes, you should save your energy and not bother to switch.

  19. Alex Shuffell
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    “30. Zombies: conceivable but not metaphysically possible 35.6%; metaphysically possible 23.3%; inconceivable 16.0%; other 25.1%.”

    Zombies? Is this a philosophical concept I have not heard of it or are they the characters from horror films?

  20. alanchais
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    But for the trolley problem, doesn’t the question change when you’re pushing someone as opposed to flipping a switch? Just because the experience of flipping a switch is less emotional for us than pushing someone, doesn’t make it more right?
    Isn’t that like saying we should do more drone strikes because we don’t feel the effects of killing civilian casualties, thus our actions are justified?

    • shelterit
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. Which is the point of the experiment, if nothing else.

      And indeed, this *is* why we now use more drones. Some might say it’s cheaper and less risk for the *pilot*, however there’s an increased risk on its victims we’re happy to overlook. The closer we can get drones to automation, the more we can say “collateral” rather than “innocent victims.”

      I think it’s time we rewrote the Trolley problem to a drone attack scenario. *grumble*

      • Gary W
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

        Some might say it’s cheaper and less risk for the *pilot*,

        Drones are cheaper and are safer for the pilot. Those are two very important reasons why the use of drones has grown dramatically and will likely grow much more in the future. All military aircraft may eventually be replaced with drones (remotely-piloted or self-piloted aircraft).

        there’s an increased risk on its victims we’re happy to overlook

        Not sure what this is supposed to mean. If drones are more effective at identifying targets and limiting collateral damage than conventional aircraft then they are likely to save lives in that way too.

        • shelterit
          Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

          Hmm, I thought this was a simple argument. Yes, the risk on the pilot is smaller (in fact, none). But;

          “If drones are more effective at identifying targets and limiting collateral damage”

          That’s a big if that happens to be absolutely wrong. The risk of other people in the vicinity of the drone is higher as it’s easier to shoot the wrong people (limited visibility), misfirings (technical limitations), technical failures, the psychological distance to their victims … and make no mistake, that this last point is, for me, the most important one. The more of a video game a drone operation is, the less psychological the impact of what you do in that game.

          Do you have an argument where the victims risk is documented lower? Otherwise I don’t see the validity.

          • Gary W
            Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

            That’s a big if that happens to be absolutely wrong.

            How do you know this? Citations, please.

            Even if it’s wrong with today’s drones, that doesn’t mean it will be wrong in the future. Drone technology is still in its infancy. Without the need for a human pilot and support systems, aircraft can be smaller and lighter and more maneuverable, and can have more sophisticated sensing and targeting systems. That should allow them to be more accurate and precise in their attacks, limiting collateral damage.

            • shelterit
              Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

              Umm, look, err, I know drones; I’ve been involved in making drone technology, and I’m more than average aware of how they work and how they do their thing.

              Requiring citations that drones are a bigger risk to people than a plane with a person in it? It’s not hard to neither google it, nor to remember a dozen cases of drone warfare gone wrong due to misidentification. But really, I only need to point out that the risk to the pilots safety mitigates the decision to pull on a trigger, a fact very well established in psychology. Even the UN has issued reports that drone warfare is a breach of international law because of this duality issue.

              I’m curious; why are you arguing the other way? My response was to agree that the statement “we should do more drone strikes because we don’t feel the effects of killing civilian casualties” is essentially true (apart from the “should” part). We *do* feel less effect the further distance between us and victim, both in terms of physical and emotional distance. Not sure if you’re arguing against that?

            • Gary W
              Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

              Umm, look, err, I know drones

              Umm, look, err, apparently you don’t.

              Requiring citations that drones are a bigger risk to people than a plane with a person in it? It’s not hard to neither google it

              It’s not my job to look for citations supporting your claims. That’s your job.

              But a quick google search yielded this New York Times article, The Moral Case for Drones, which contradicts your claims. The article cites research concluding that drones reduce civilian casualties compared to conventional air and ground assaults, for the reasons I suggested — drones are better at identifying targets and striking with precision.

              Quote:

              “all the evidence we have so far suggests that drones do better at both identifying the terrorist and avoiding collateral damage than anything else we have.”

              • shelterit
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

                “apparently you don’t”

                What, now? I mentioned my work with drones in as so much as to point out that I don’t have a bias against drones as such.

                “New York Times article”

                Yes, of course there’s going to be articles like that; it’s a multi-billion dollar industry, for one, but also is a controversial subject in several regards. I’m merely pointing out that the hardest part of it is that it dehumanizes a human conflict, and those are linked to psychological issues. I find it odd that you ignore this part?

  21. Sastra
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    If *I* were a philosopher, I would have answered every question with “other.” After all, how do you capture nuances in this type of survey? The answer is ALWAYS “Well … it depends …”

    Okay, I’m kidding. Sort of. It depends.

    • abandonwoo
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      The site does not permit me to simply select follow-up comments via email; it is necessary to post something in order to do so. If I don’t flip this switch the trolley trundles off without me, which circumvents my free will. Sorta. Some would say that kinda depends, possibly, a nuance with merit. Or not.

  22. Diana MacPherson
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    I’m curious how the philosophers came to their position in regard to Free Will. If they reject what neuroscience tells us, then what mechanism did they use to arrive at their conclusion and does neuroscience and philosophy agree on the definition of free will (I suspect they do).

    • Vaal
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

      Philosophers who hold to Compatibilism (Free Will) don’t “reject” what neuroscience tells us; they believe that the best understanding of free will derives from understanding the nature of determinism, which includes anything we learn in neuroscience, as well as examining the assumptions one brings to the term “Free Will.”

      It’s like pointing out that if by “evolution” you assume some striving-toward-a-certain-perfection-or-form, some teleological goal, then this is a poor conception of evolution. The “better” explanation won’t reject evolution science; it will be based upon it. Same with Free Will. The compatibilists would say people who argue from neuroscience to “no free will” do so by having poor or incoherent assumptions associated with the concept of Free Will.

      A good place to check out Compatibilism would be Dan Dennett’s books, e.g. Free Will Evolves.

      Vaal

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        Cool – thanks Vaal.

      • Posted May 1, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

        * Freedom Evolves

      • josh
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        The problem being that it is the compatibilists (as well as the libertarians) who always end up having the poor and incoherent definitions of free will. :)

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted May 1, 2013 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

          I think this is why I end up in arguments all the time.

  23. Robert Bray
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    A couple of issues ago I read a strange review of Alex Rosenberg’s ‘Atheist’s Guide to Reality’ in ‘Free Inquiry.’ The reviewer, an academic philosopher, dismissed Rosenberg’s argument against free will on the grounds that ‘a majority of philosophers believe in free will.’ The solutions to such perplexing problems, then? Let the experts take a vote, and let it be binding on the rest of us: I do have free will because most philosophers say I do.

  24. DV
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    >>1. A priori knowledge: yes 71.1%; no 18.4%; other 10.5%.

    What? Nearly 30% of philosophers don’t know 1 + 1 = 2 without counting with their fingers?

    • Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      There are some philosophers who think that mathematics is a posteriori. Historically, this is attributed to JS Mill, most noticably. For me, the “Other” is the correct answer, since I don’t regard the a priori/a posterori distinction to be clear (there are a few that people conflate constantly). Better is the formal/factual distinction which is (sort of) due to Leibniz.

      • DV
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        Mathematics is a posteriori? Either they know only pre-school math, or they have a very loose definition of “experience”.

        • shelterit
          Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

          Well, remember the question of whether numbers are real or not. We can agree they’re abstract notions of something, but how strong is that notion? If I place an apple on the table and declare to have one apple, is that apple a real representation of the number 1?

          It’s all linguistics, if you ask me. Philosophy mostly is misunderstandings in language, and a need or want to be categorical in a messy, messy world. I think it mostly fails, but I also love philosophy as a way to reach that conclusion!

        • Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

          Precisely – the best argument in favour of the viewpoint quickly leads one to Leibniz-Bunge on formal vs. factual, since the real matter should be one of what statements are *about*, not some hard-to-discuss myth about learning or the like.

  25. brianbuchbinder
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    I’d definitely pull the switch unless it were 5 philosophers of the type who pose this and the drowning mom problem, too. Then I’d let the trolly hit them.

  26. DV
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    >>59% compatibilists in free will, and only 12% seeing “no free will”? Really? These are the folks who have soothed themselves by replacing the old dualistic notion of free will with an updated one. That doesn’t make me happy.

    What should be more troubling to you is that there’s 13.7% who think free will exists in exactly the way you define it, therefore determinism is false.

  27. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    I guess there is no harm in reposting my immediate reaction upon reading Carroll’s post:

    … oh noes! Since “qualia” is obviously a damned stupidity, I got curious about “representationalism”. Well, if philosophers think brains have “states” the recent real time imaging, practically speaking, of tetra-fish brain activity will come as a surprise with its haphazard and sometimes whole-scale activity.

    To paraphrase, fuzzy and unsubstantiated thoughts often annoy me, particularly when I have to do the ferreting out of them myself; in which case the following would apply with justice and force:

    There are three kind of stupidities: stupidities, damned stupidities, and philosophy.

  28. Róbert Konček
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Thank you, very interesting.

    One quick finding. Look at the Table 9 in the linked paper. Long story short: 20,87% of philosophers of religion are atheists, whereas 86,78% of philosophers with different specializations are.

  29. TJR
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    The equivalent for statisticians would ask:

    Which form of statistical inference do you favour?

    Bayesian
    Classical
    Other

    There might be blood on the carpet, though.

    • Sunny
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      You appear to have a strong prior.

  30. Diego
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    I’m sincerely curious. Why are folks here so anti-compatibilism?

    I would think that as materialists/determinists (I assume the majority of readers here) we’d consider compatibilists to be allies. As I understand the position, a compatibilist typically believes in all the precepts of determinism but has a different concept of free will (no extrinsic constraints). I mean as an atheist I wouldn’t be upset to see a majority of the general population were agnostic.

    As an aside, in a play on natural philosophy/moral philosophy, I like to call my philosopher girlfriend an “unnatural philosopher” and she calls me (a biologist) an “immoral philosopher”. ;)

    • Robert
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      I dunno, I think the compatibilism x no free will conflict is really a definitional one.

      Both camps dismiss classic notions of free-will because their is no evidence for it and plenty of evidence agaisnt it.

      Compatibilists though say that in fact the idea of classical free will makes no sense to begin with and reclaim the word.

      That’s how I understand it at least.

    • Peter
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      I think the difference is that some incompatibilists (like Jerry, in particular) are actually trying to make the argument:

      -an immaterial, immortal soul would imply (contra-causal) free will

      -There is good evidence against (contra-causal) free will

      -Therefore there is good evidence against a soul

      Compatibilists are interested in other aspects of the free will question, so when we defend the notion of free-will (e.g. arguing that contra-causality never added anything to the notion of agency, so refuting contra-causality doesn’t really undermine it) we get accused of trying to leave the door open for a soul (regardless of how clearly we express that we are materialists and reject dualism).

    • shelterit
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

      I think many looks on compatibilism as a way to save classical philosophy from the doom given to them by pragmatism and falsification. After Peirce, James and Popper built pragmatism on top of Hume and Locke (in broad strokes), and as more and more were connected to it and left other epistemic models in the gutter (and, indeed, few scientists or people who care about these things look elsewhere), little bits like metaphysics were to the philosophers to deal with.

      Personally I think that as Ethics has been more and more established in pragmatism and empiricism, those who like classical Ethics and some half-form of dualism of mind created compatibilism in order to “talk about” ethics in the old style while being true to reality at the same time.

      I’ve never heard compatibilism defended in a satisfactory way. I understand that we call same or connected phenomena different things depending on the scale we use, but I find it wrong to do so to a large degree, but especially when we do so where that distinction wasn’t before, and in order to still “talk the talk” redefine concepts to make them better fit a style of talking about things rather than getting us closer to reality.

      We don’t need compatibilism; we need better language that talks about reality as it is. Science emerged to do this; philosophy should do so to, if it wishes to live.

  31. David Sepkoski
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    I seriously wonder whether some of the philosophy-bashers here have any real idea of what philosophers of science–say, philosophers of biology–actually do. There seems to be the completely misguided assumption that all philosophers do is sit around and muse about general, abstract questions. That is absolutely not the case.

    Philosophers of biology work on specific problems–like adaptation, or selection, or species individuality, or ecological networks, or just about any other topic you can think of in biology–and apply philosophical tools to try to test the logic of certain arguments.

    Really, instead of indiscriminately bashing philosophy, you should read something by David Hull, or Philip Kitcher, or Alan Love, or John Beatty, or Peter Godfrey-Smith, or Paul Griffiths, or Lisa Lloyd, or Samir Okasha, or Sahotra Sarkar, or Ken Waters, or Bill Wimsatt, or… the list could go on and on. These are people who deeply understand science (some even have PhDs in biology), who collaborate with scientists, and who do not even remotely fit this ridiculous caricature that’s being bandied about here.

    This is not the courtier’s reply, because I am not demanding that anyone read or respond to ALL of philosophy. It’s a simple matter of being educated about something before you sweepingly dismiss it. And I’m seeing precious little evidence among the philosophy-haters. But aren’t we constantly telling creationists not to make claims about biology without being able to demonstrate knowledge of the subject? Why is this any different?

    So, Ben Goren and others, why don’t you read some papers by a few of the people on my list and then come back and explain what is bullshit about what they do. And don’t come back and say “well, yeah, but OTHER kinds of philosophy are postmodern bs” or whatever. I assume that when, on a website like this one, someone attacks philosophy, they are specifically criticizing philosophy’s contribution to biology.

    • Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      Are these “philosophers of biology” performing rational analyses of empirical observations (including meta-analyses of the work of others)? If so, they’re engaged in the very definition of science.

      If not, then what, exactly, is it that they’re doing that actual scientists don’t already do themselves?

      Are they just dreaming up ideas? If so, either they’re filling the same role that theoretical physicists do (and that’s not philosophy) or they’re completely divorced from the hypothesize-observe-analyze feedback loop of empiricism and they’re basically useless.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • David Sepkoski
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:58 am | Permalink

        Or, by the same token, we could say that what scientists do–“performing rational analyses of empirical observations (including meta-analyses of the work of others)”–is the very definition of philosophy.

        But I see how this works for you: if I can point to a philosopher who does good work, than you’ll just argue that it’s not philosophy. Anyway, that’s fine–whatever you want to call it, these people who call themselves “philosophers” make real contributions to our understanding of science. If you want to sneer at them, that’s your business, and frankly, your loss. But I hope that others who read this thread might be encouraged to check out some of the work by the people I mentioned.

        • Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

          Since when is the rational analysis of empirical observation a universal definitional characteristic of philosophy?

          Hell, it’s right there in the survey linked to. Only a small minority of philosophers are even philosophical empiricists.

          Please. Trying to pretend that philosophy as a discipline even gives lip service to empiricism is worse than a Christian claiming that Genesis contains an accurate account of the origins of life on Earth.

          Are there philosophers who value empiricism? Sure. So what? Ken Miller is a Catholic. That doesn’t mean that philosophy is science any more than it means that all mankind descended from Adam and Eve.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • David Sepkoski
            Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

            Ah, you decided to go nuclear and compare me to a creationist (actually, “worse” than a creationist). Nice one. I’ll just step back and let you continue your rant, then.

            • shelterit
              Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

              It would be better if there was some counter-argument? Ben is strong in his opinions, sure, but his argument here is not wrong as far as I can see. Where is he wrong?

  32. Myron
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    “The 27% of people who see mind as largely non-physical is a disturbing figure. That goes against everything that neurobiology has told us, and shows that not all philosophers are on board with science.” – J. Coyne

    Non- or antiphysicalism about the mind comprises both substance dualism and attribute (property) dualism. According to the former, a mind (or soul) is a nonphysical substance; and according to the latter, a mind is not a nonphysical substance but a set or cluster of nonphysical attributes, whose possessors are physical substances (organisms, brains).
    For example, David Chalmers’ naturalistic dualism is nonphysicalistic, but it is still naturalistic and science-compatible because it is only attribute-dualistic. Chalmers doesn’t believe that there are mental substances, but only that there are mental (experiential/phenomenal) properties which are nonphysical in the sense of being physically irreducible and not being (onto-)logically supervenient on or necessitated by physical properties.

    In addition to naturalistic attribute dualism à la Chalmers, there’s another naturalistic form of nonphysicalism in the philosophy of mind: naturalistic panpsychism. These two views are not antiscientific!

  33. Gordon Hill
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the link. I shall read it.

  34. Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Ben, I can’t reply above, so I will start a new comment. You still haven’t answered my main question to you. Do you think that the fact that most people asked the trolley questions say yes to flipping the switch, but no to pushing the fat guy is worthless information from which we can learn nothing about human nature?

    • Posted May 1, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      Any utility from such information is extremely limited — unless, of course, you were planning on using humans as emergency stops in train stations and was debating on whom to focus your recruitment efforts on.

      No, I’m totally serious. Whatever you think it is that you’ve learned by making people fantasize about killing fat people, it’s not what psychologists have already more than amply demonstrated you actually would have learned had you even taken an introductory course on the subject.

      This is another failing of the philosophically-inclined, similar to the failings of the religious. You’re so far out of touch with what’s actually been going on that it’s like trying to explain what keeps the stars from falling from the sky if not a giant metal dome — and, besides which, the stars are just holes in said dome which is why they’re not falling down. Where does one even begin to counter such levels of ignorance?

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted May 1, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

        I’ve taken an introductory level course… at an Ivy League university. I’m fairly certain the ignorance is all yours. Both about my education and your understanding of the subject at hand.

        • shelterit
          Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

          And I’m the pope of Gandali! That’s why I’m right!

          Or, in other words, it would be great to hear what you had to say to the arguments given instead. What *is* it that this thought experiment have taught you, and what has it taught you that psychology couldn’t teach you?

          • Gary W
            Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

            What *is* it that this thought experiment have taught you,

            It tells us about human moral beliefs and reasoning, in particular regarding the do/allow distinction (causing harm vs. allowing harm). The findings potentially have value in all sorts of areas, from advertising to public policy.

            and what has it taught you that psychology couldn’t teach you?

            Since moral beliefs and reasoning are part of human psychology, this question doesn’t make much sense. What better way of discovering the knowledge produced through these experiments do you propose?

            • shelterit
              Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

              I think you’re missing the point; we have psychology as an established science, because, well, they deliver actual results.

              What actual results do philosophers deliver?

              “The findings potentially have value in all sorts of areas, from advertising to public policy”

              No, no, no, you’re making big, bold and broad statements about its potential. Have you got something concrete? What has this experiment taught you that has any applicability? How does it apply? And, if psychology at some point in its history have provided the answer you’re about to give, then the argument that we should still think about this experiment is null and void. What has the thought experiment taught you that only philosophy could give you? Anything practical? Anything applicable to reality?

            • Gary W
              Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

              I think you’re missing the point; we have psychology as an established science, because, well, they deliver actual results. What actual results do philosophers deliver?

              You asked what this thought experiment tells us. I told you. Your response is to claim I’m missing the point and to ask a completely different question. No, I’m not missing the point. You’re trying to change the subject.

              No, no, no, you’re making big, bold and broad statements about its potential.

              Yes, yes, yes I am. It has big, bold and broad potential, as I just explained. For example, by telling us what kind of acts are likely to alienate people or engage their sympathies, it could help advertisers design more effective marketing campaigns. Or help movie studios create more sympathetic characters. Or help the government design more effective laws and policies to induce people to behave in certain ways.

              • shelterit
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

                “You asked what this thought experiment tells us. I told you.”

                Hmm. No, your answer was lofty and fluffy with no bearing on reality.

                “It has big, bold and broad potential”

                And my point is, until that potential can be manifested in something useful – and I mean something actually useful – then the label of “important” needs to come off.

  35. JimV
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    I have to hand it to Ben Goren. He’s the one commenter I’ve seen who can talk me out of a previously-held position by his defense of said position. I’ve done of couple of rants elsewhere in response to what I call “philosophism” and now I’m wondering if I sounded as closed-minded as he does.

    • David Sepkoski
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      Don’t worry–I doubt that’s possible.

      • Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        It’s a good job Ben didn’t see this post! :-D

        /@

        • Posted May 1, 2013 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

          It certainly is. Although I have to wonder, did he not see it, or did he spare Dr. Coyne the wrath of Goren out of respect for the host and a desire to be polite? I, for one, would love to see Dr. Coyne’s response to Ben telling him to go take psych 101 and get back to us when he’s no longer an ignorant fool.

  36. Posted May 1, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Also, I’d be interested in Prof Coyne’s answer to the Newcomb Problem. Am I right to assume you are a two box guy?

    • Posted May 1, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      It’s so overwhelmingly typical of the pointlessness of philosophy — garbage in, garbage out.

      Demonstrate an oracle capable of making predictions such as the “paradox” demands in order to function, and then we’ll talk. Until then, it’s as meaningless as debating the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.

      It’s typical of philosophical bullshit in another way. The game is that you’re not allowed to pay any attention to the man behind the curtain; that you have to have absolute, unquestioning confidence in the validity of the thought experiment as it’s presented to you. You’re not allowed to examine the experiment to see if it’s even vaguely coherent; instead, it’s demanded that you absolutely suspend all disbelief for the purposes of the philosopher.

      That’s fiction, and really bad fiction at that. It has no bearing on reality. And, yet, that’s all that philosophers care about…and then they get upset when rationalists tell them they’re ignorant juvenile fantasists disconnected from reality. Go figure.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted May 1, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        Again, you are completely missing the point. It can teach us about how people think. Do people think that an action in the present can affect the past? How rational are people in this situation? Does changing the monetary reward change behavior? These are interesting questions? You’re lack of interest in how people think is remarkable.

        • Posted May 1, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

          Wait. Let me get this straight.

          You think it’s important to gauge popular understanding of time travel, and that this joke of an “experiment” will actually teach you something about that?

          Aw, hell. Why not come up with some other equally inane “experiments” to get an idea of what people think about lightsabers and warp engines and the faeries at the foot of the garden and even transubstantiation while you’re at it?

          Ooh — I know! Let’s devise an “experiment” where we tell people that this here pencil is a magic wand, and they can either wave it to the left and cure cancer or wave it to the right and cure diabetes! And we’ll have Chopra write up the summary and base NIH funding decisions on the results!

          I can haz Templeton nao?

          b&

          • Posted May 1, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

            Yes, because if Templeton has taught us anything it is that no one believes things that aren’t true. No one, for example, believes in angels, or devlis, ghosts, or gods. No one believes that an all knowing, all powerful entity can reward or punish us for our decisions? No one believes in ESP or action at a distance. Certainly no one believes that water molecules can ‘remember’ what was dissolved in them and use that ‘knowledge’ to cure diseases. How ridiculous to ask people questions about these kinds of things?! Pascal Boyer’s work on the origins of religion, for example, is such a waste of time, since we all know religion isn’t true. I mean, it’s like taking seriously the idea that a bad science fiction writer could expound on a guy named Xenu and Thetans, and Boeing 737’s and someone might actually take it seriously. What a joke! Ben, you are embarrasing yourself…in front of all your friends. Just stop.

            On a related topic, a serious question. When was the last time you admitted you were wrong about something and changed your mind after a discussion/argument with someone (online or in person)?

            • Posted May 1, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

              Those are all worthy subjects of study, but you’ve now shifted the goalposts. Rather than discussing the philosophical implications of Newcomb’s Joke, you’re now probing sociology abnormal psychology, especially the parts dealing with deception and cognitive dissonance.

              And, again, Newcomb’s Lark ain’t gonna tell you much about those things.

              Or were you trying to get Jerry to reveal whether or not he’s gullible to fall for taking time travel seriously when you asked him his opinion on it?

              On a related topic, a serious question. When was the last time you admitted you were wrong about something and changed your mind after a discussion/argument with someone (online or in person)?

              On these sorts of things, it happens, but very rarely. I hasn’t happened recently enough for me to tell you the last time it happened, but I think Torbjörn might have been the most recent one to trigger a re-think…maybe he remembers.

              But just yesterday on a particular project I had something off by 1/16″ and ‘fessed up to it and apologized on the spot. We had a quick discussion and realized that the original design needed some room for trapping (rather than try to precisely match things up) and that I need a copy of another bit to check measurements against.

              Fortunately for my pride but not for the project, my error was recoverable…but there were some other much worse errors entirely other people’s fault. The good news is that everybody’s learned from the mistrakes and there’s no reason to think they’ll be repeated.

              That’s why I don’t tend to move very often on these sorts of “philosophical” discussions. I’ve been at this a very long time; I made all those mistrakes long ago; and I generally don’t have to make a mistrake more than once.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Posted May 1, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

                As Ant made clear in his reply to comment #35, Dr. Coyne does not share your disdain for these types of thought experiments. Ok then, I’m done. But I assure you, on this topic, you’re off by more than 1/16″.

              • Matt
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

                Ben,

                I’ve been reading along this thread of comments and as a huge advocate of science it kills me to say this, but your brutal pragmatism is bordering on evangelical.

                First and foremost, the ‘fruits’ of science are not science. Science is a methodological framework which insofar as it’s application of the null hypothesis and it’s inductive reasoning is philosophical.

                The fact that the majority of scientists draw a distinction between observation and theory is a philosophical caveat. The demand for all theories to be falsifiable demonstrates the same: observation is not a proof and induction is not logical.

                Repeatedly measuring the speed of light in a vacuum is no guarantee that it will always be that speed. Human assumption would make that leap, but logic and philosophy won’t. It is the ‘philosophy’ hard-wired into the scientific approach that makes it humble and thereby so effective. To understand the elusive nature of knowledge is to equip oneself to make progress within it.

                To say that ‘science works’ is to create some kind of notion of infallibility around ‘science’, which is the absolute antithesis of the skeptical inquiry by which it operates.

                Science proceeds entirely on the assumption of its own flaws, not on the assumption of its own superiority and would describe any one leading theory as ‘the least flawed’, knowing that in the next century an even less flawed theory may come along. It is this philosophical approach which sets it head and shoulders above in terms of results. Not the pure egotism to which you are ascribing it.

                P. S. Arguing the logistics of the trolley argument is pointless: extrapolating cases with trained officials and untrained civilians is to ignore the question it frames concerning the value of human life and the moral conviction of human beings.

    • Stephen P
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

      I’m coming late to this party, but it seems that Pacopicopiedra and Ben are both slightly missing the point with Newcomb’s problem. As a question in psychology it is potentially an interesting question for research, and if philosophers can come up with good objects of study to help us understand how people think, that is to be applauded.

      But if philosophical training is to have any purpose at all, I would hope it would at least enable the trainee to quickly analyse a problem like this and work out that it is internally inconsistent. It’s rather like the mathematical sleight of hand that demonstrates that x=2 and x=3 simultaneously, and does it by dividing by (n-1) while assuming somewhere else that n=1. In this case the problem both demands and rules out a free choice by the chooser.

      The fact that a majority of respondents answered either “one box” or “two boxes” doesn’t inspire much faith in the state of academic philosophy. (Unless they were all just teasing …)

  37. Nick
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Not sure if it’s already been said but I also puzzled over the responses to ‘teletransporter': survival, death, other. Other??

    • Robert
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      Mirror Universe? Though technically that falls under survival… at least in the short-term!

  38. kelskye
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    I’m surprised that there are more physicalists about the mind than there are metaphysical naturalists. I’d have thought that the mind would be the sticking point given the hard problem of consciousness. I would have thought the number of non-physicalist naturalists would have outweighed the physicalist non-naturalists.

    On morality, I wonder where Simon Blackburn fits into that distinction. Also, I take it that error theory fits into the anti-realist category?

    On the free wilk debate, doesnt thr preponderance of compstibilists suggest that demanding free will be focused on the contra-causal kind seem like misrepresenting the field?

  39. Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I agree that it’s obvious that one should flip the switch in the trolley problem. Those few who don’t typically think that you would be killing if you flipped the switch, but merely letting die if you didn’t. And they (wrongly) think that killing is intrinsically much worse than letting die.

    As for the philosophy-bashing, many people have already made really good points, so I don’t have a lot to say there. Philosophobia is actually disturbingly common: it goes all the way back to executing Socrates, through the Nazis disproportionately targeting philosophers, through the Taliban shutting down philosophy courses as one of their first policy changes.

    Unfortunately, one can’t really do the topic justice in comments on a blog post. I will say that philosophy-bashers have rarely given me any good reason to think that they’ve seriously studied analytic philosophy from experts.

    • peter
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 5:54 am | Permalink

      “…rarely given me any good reason to think that they’ve seriously studied analytic philosophy from experts.”

      Take a look here for a different reply by me, if you want to see one, referring to the work of the longstanding main founder and organizer of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, wishing not to name names of apparent incompetents, but easy to find.

      Do you know what others commenting here have studied?

      I’ll dig up the actual references to phil journals there if you really want them, and even send you the ten lines or so needed to show they’ve devoted 100 pages over 18 years to what amounts to whether ‘a logically valid formula implies god exists’ can actually be used to formally deduce that ‘god exists’.

      Or is it something from the logical positivists from 90 years ago that I’m expected to have studied? Name-calling (philosophobia) is pathetic.

      • Posted May 2, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

        peter,

        Yes, some philosophy-bashers have studied some philosophy. My claim is that from what they say here, it is not at all clear that many have. That’s not inherently bad–we don’t all have time to study everything–but it does undermine claims of authority about the field.

        Your example of logics is interesting. The line you quote is probably about whether there are truth-value “gaps” or “gluts”: whether ‘p is not true’ implies ‘p is false,’ and whether ‘p is true’ implies ‘p is not false.’ (I don’t believe it’s about modal logic.) I agree that this is one of the more esoteric areas of philosophy, but I certainly can’t see that as an indictment of the discipline as a whole, especially when scientists and mathematicians regularly investigate very esoteric areas without yet any clear application to real-world problems. We often develop an apparatus or logic first, and then later find an application for it.

        The motivations for developing paraconsistent logics go far beyond quantum mechanics; indeed, quantum mechanics is not even mentioned in that article. Analogously for modal logics; God is not even mentioned in that article.

  40. madscientist
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    We can see here that philosophy is every bit as effective as theology. I’d like to see comparable polls of physicists answering questions in physics and chemists answering questions in chemistry.

    • Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      Well, find some hypergeneral question to ask in both fields. I’ll admit that many philosophers are contrarians and sometimes lack background knowledge in other fields (for example, in my case, in some of the social sciences). But dealing with more general questions makes it harder to reach consensus. As it happens, this is one of the reasons I like pointing out that automata theory is in effect a part of metaphysics.

  41. madscientist
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Oh – as for the trolley issue I think it’s a simple matter of psychology. Some people wouldn’t flip the switch because then they have actively caused someone to be killed and deem themselves personally responsible while they believe they have no responsibility if the tragedy were initiated by other means rather than their direct involvement. In other words, morality is simply a matter of convenience and being complicit is not immoral. Every asshole has their excuse.

  42. Posted May 1, 2013 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Of course, the trolley problem isn’t just the cruel thought experiment of fascistic philosophers. It has been used in cognitive science (Mikhail), in neuroethics (Greene & Cohen), and in psychology (Bartels & Pizarro). But I suppose these folks must all have been just bullshitting scientists doing bad science… 

    /@

    • Posted May 1, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

      I would have to review the work in question, but I remain most skeptical that the trolley car problem as commonly presented is at all useful, even if the researchers sincerely think otherwise.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted May 2, 2013 at 2:15 am | Permalink

        Do.

        Drop anything and everything else you’re doing, and study this!

        :-D

        /@

  43. Daniel
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    I’m one of the don’t-flip-the-switch-ers on account of the assumptions that form when I am forced to fill in the gaps in the context – context that the framers of the questions always avoid talking about.

    I tend to assume that the one person on the ‘safe’ track knows that their track is supposed to be safe, and may have a good reason to be there – a technician making repairs, for example.

    I tend to assume that the five people on the ‘unsafe’ track should have known better, and probably don’t have a good reason to be there.

    I find it too heartless to punish the technician for just doing their damn job properly at a time when the track was supposed to be safe just to maintain the lives of five idiots who shouldn’t have been on the unsafe track in the first place.

    I also generalize: If every time a group of idiots jumps on an unsafe track, the switch controller will just flip the switch and possibly kill a technician, then it is impossible to know with confidence when it is actually safe for a technician to work on a given section of track. In the large case and long term, switch-flipping leads to chaos and disrepair.

    If, on the other hand, the context is filled in for me such that those assumptions don’t hold any more, then I become a switch-flipper like the majority.

    • Gary W
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

      It is stipulated that none of the people on the track are there for a good reason or know better. They’ve all been tied to the track against their will. Do you still refuse to throw the switch? If so, why?

      • lkr
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

        it is further stipulated that all thought experiments have a sell-by date. Can we move on?

      • Daniel
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

        Most of the time when I find someone presenting the trolley problem, they go out of their way to not stipulate anything. In which case I fill in blanks with the most reasonable-seeming (to me) assumptions and go from there.

        That said, I already answered you. Check out the final paragraph on the comment to which you replied. ;)

        Reason: Minimize loss of life.

        I’ve been over this already with Dan Fincke here if you’re interested in a slightly more detailed breakdown of how I think about this problem.

        • Gary W
          Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

          That said, I already answered you. Check out the final paragraph on the comment to which you replied. Reason: Minimize loss of life

          Ok, so like me, and a large majority of professional philosophers, and apparently a majority of people in general, you would throw the switch. Good to know.

  44. dulzimordash
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Nature’s Abhorred Vacuum.

  45. shelterit
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    Someone I can’t remember said of Ben Goren’s activity on this post; “your brutal pragmatism is bordering on evangelical”

    No. It’s pragmatism. *ba-badam-tsch*

    Seriously, as someone who loves the concept of philosophy, it’s absolutely in its place to kick non-pragmatic epistemology in its teeth for abstracting away the importance of *reality*.

    Thought experiments are sometimes fun, can sharpen your mind, and make you a better rationalist … within the hopelessly stupid constraints of the thought experiment. Folks, this is what we complain about with Theology; interpreting language / text to the point it adheres to some reasoning that is no longer threatening our preconceived notions.

    It’s sheer lunacy to not link your philosophical models directly to the one thing we all agree upon, realty. That was Hume’s biggest claim to fame; reality is there, whether you like some solipsistic model that can’t avoid me punching you in the face! You will be punched in the face! It will happen, whether I’m not really there or not, whether I’m subjectively there, or whether I’m an abstract object of some potential reality, or if I fit some universal concept of agency, or if I’m deterministically casual … ignoring the punch will land you a black eye and some pain, and possibly embarrassment.

    It reminds me a bit like this, where some confident master of no-touch philosopher debates a pragmatic realist;

    • Daniel
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

      Damnit!

      I really want to check out that link, but am at work, and am forced to use an RDP session over which it wouldn’t be watchable even if I did click through anyway.

      Stupid technology, not catering to my every fleeting whim and desire. :P

      • shelterit
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

        I’ll explain roughly what the video shows;

        There’s a certain notion within certain martial arts (and certain new age hand-waving people) the idea that mere thought (or Chi or force or energy or some other mystery force) is enough to overcome an opponent; that you can punch without touching, or swat aside a blow by mere gesture without touching. Aikido and Kiai especially has a few people who think this, but I’ve also seen it elsewhere where, at least mostly, it’s treated as a possible rather than an absolute.

        However, in this video there was a challenge from an Kiai master that was so sure of his ability of non-touch fighting that he invited any other fighter to take him on.

        One did. And it ends very, very badly for the “master”; when faced with the real world with real opponents who hits and kicks for real into real places, his mastery of non-touch got garrotted by someone who hadn’t been conditioned into thinking this non-touch stuff actually works (look up videos of pupils of masters throw themselves around to this “force” wielded upon them; quite comically, but also show a very interesting psychological phenomenon in action; conviction of truth against overwhelming evidence of the contrary).

        It’s both funny and tragic at the same time.

        • Posted May 2, 2013 at 2:13 am | Permalink

          More along this line here. “It didn’t work because the skeptic was a non-believer.” Orly?

          /@

    • Matt
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

      It was me that said that. And, I am a pragmatism and I do agree that we should base our understanding of the universe on the observable precedents of our commonly shared reality. It would be insane not to.

      However, the vast majority of philosophy operates on the same level. It is descriptive of reality. It shares with science its skepticism and its obsession for detail and its curiousness about the universe.

      Philosophy, like science, conceives new angles by which to view things, challenges commonly accepted notions and is concerned primarily with theories and models that lie far beyond the purview of our humble senses and our everyday tracts of thought.

      I don’t see why you need to pick a side in this. The many things that I have learned by studying philosophy have only deepened my understanding of the world around me and of the practice of science, not convoluted it.

      On the subject of thought experiments, it’s worth remembering that Einstein spent hours up on hours conducting thought experiments before he arrived at his conclusions about relativity.

      • shelterit
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

        I will agree with you in as much as thought experiments help us think, and as an aide to sharpen the mind and try to approach a problem from many angles is all good. This we agree on. However;

        “the vast majority of philosophy operates on the same level”

        Then you need to be far more careful and specific about what philosophy and / or philosopher you’re talking about. Far too much of it is arguing over minute differences in semantics that cannot be solved because their underlying models aren’t exactly the same. If nothing else, at least *that* important point Wittgenstein got spot on. I simply cannot go along with the majority of it somehow explains or describes “reality” when quite substantial parts of it abstracts it away, and that is – by and large – not pragmatism (neither in original nor modern form).

        “I don’t see why you need to pick a side in this.”

        I don’t think that’s what going on here. It’s more like this; “Far too much of philosophy is nonsense or not important. Cut your losses and adjust, or else we commit you to the fire.*”

        * Bonus points for knowing who said that. No cheating! :)

        • shelterit
          Posted May 1, 2013 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

          Come to think of it, I think he said “commit it to the flames” instead. Oh well, that should help you google it. :)

  46. Gordon Hill
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    David Chalmers has been busy point philosophical papers for years. There are links to nearly two thousand of them at

    http://consc.net/online

    One of his more interesting papers (1995) is on the easy and hard problems of consciousness at http://consc.net/papers/facing.html

    • Gordon Hill
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

      …not point, posting

  47. Ram
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:54 am | Permalink

    Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching, what ought one do?): switch or don’t switch?

    Accept: switch 420 / 931 (45.1%)
    Lean toward: switch 215 / 931 (23.1%)
    Agnostic/undecided 60 / 931 (6.4%)
    Lean toward: don’t switch 45 / 931 (4.8%)
    Insufficiently familiar with the issue 42 / 931 (4.5%)
    There is no fact of the matter 34 / 931 (3.7%)
    The question is too unclear to answer 27 / 931 (2.9%)
    Accept: don’t switch 26 / 931 (2.8%)
    Reject both 18 / 931 (1.9%)
    Skip 15 / 931 (1.6%)
    Accept another alternative 11 / 931 (1.2%)
    Other 10 / 931 (1.1%)
    Accept an intermediate view 4 / 931 (0.4%)
    Accept both 4 / 931 (0.4%)

    http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl?affil=Target+faculty&areas0=0&areas_max=1&grain=fine

  48. Jens Knudsen (Sili)
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Funny how people can apparently claim to be atheists, and still believe in Platonism.

  49. Gordon Hill
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. Voltaire was correct in noting that definition of terms is essential. there seems to be a difference here as to what constitutes philosophy. In my reading, philosophers do not claim science as a branch of philosophy although they do claim that science is an outgrowth of pre-empirical philosophy; however, as the means of observation and measurement developed, science departed the realm of philosophy and mover from the subjective to the empirical and formal (using Isaiah Berlin’s characterization as to two types of knowledge). withing science we find varying degrees of uncertainty w.r.t. empirical knowledge. Within philosophy, uncertainty abounds as philosophers grasp at wisps of ideas beyond observation.

    While there is a body of knowledge available to all, not all have the where with all in time or intelligence to understand what is known. Knowledge to one may be belief to another. It begins with a thought and we have no idea how that comes into being. suggesting that a thought, which is beyond present knowing, establishes a basis for forming truth seems indefensible… to me… but I am, as are others, limited.


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