• Philosophy is Pointless.

    Philosophers disagree about nearly everything. For every branch of philosophy you find, from the philosophy of mathematics to ethics and beyond, it seems that a large range of answers have been advocated as the correct one for each and every “big question” we humans face. All of these positions cannot be right. At best only one position is right. Therefore, most of these positions are wrong. How to tell the difference? All professional philosophers are skilled in the use of logic, and all of them use similar tools for finding the right answers to these questions: they check the logical consistency of an idea, they use their intuition, they check the idea against their ordinary observations about the world, and so on. Still, the use of such methods hasn’t weeded out too many philosophical ideas. There are still many philosophical positions that have at least a few advocates in spite of the fact that those advocates applied the same method to it as its detractors have.

    What right do I have to advocate any particular philosophical position? I probably have an argument or three in favor of it. I like the position, I find it intuitive. As best I can tell, the idea is logically consistent. It fits in with my experience of the world and my other philosophical viewpoints.

    But the same thing could be said by any and all people who hold to a different philosophical position. My detractors and I could hash out a long dialogue until one of us breaks and admits that the other is right. However, such dialogues are continually had in philosophy journals, formal debates, and so on, without final resolution. An error is more likely to be made by a minority than a majority, so maybe we ought to just defer to the position that has at least 51% agreement within philosophical circles.? Look at a recent poll of philosophers, you’ll find that about half of the thirty questions asked do not have an answer that recieved over 50% of the votes.

    It looks like our options are exhausted; Maybe we ought to retreat. To hell with philosophy. We’ve seen that we have no practical way of getting at the right answer. The smart thing to do is withhold belief from all philosophical doctrines and get on with our lives. Right? Not so fast. A lot of decisions we have to make are heavily influenced by philosophical beliefs. How we ought to treat other people (ethics). How we decide what to believe (epistemology). And so on. We can’t just rely on intuition (or gut instinct) to provide us the answers to all of these questions (Even if we tried it, What would we do when other people disagreed with our intuitively-drawn conlusion? What if you run into a problem that your intuition just doesn’t know how to solve?). We can’t trust philosophy, but we must.

    Or so it seems. Newtonian mechanics (from Isaac Newton) is now known to be false and it has been discarded in favor of Relativistic Mechanics (from Albert Einstein). However, Newtonian mechanics still works pretty well for predicting the outcomes of certain situations, and its equations are still used by Biologists. Newtonian mechanics, it seems, approximates the truth, or at least gives the right answer most of the time. And that makes it useful.

    I used to hold to a utilitarian view of ethics, like Sam Harris (see The Moral Landscape). The basic viewpoint of all utilitarians is that whether an action is moral is determined by whether it maximizes happiness (or well-being, or pleasure, depending upon which version of the theory we’re talking about). As attractive as the viewpoint sounds, it has a number of well-known problems. For example, suppose that a surgeon is operating on an attractive woman under anaesthesia. Would it be morally acceptable for him to touch her breasts? According to utilitarianism, it shouldn’t be objectionable at all. Touching her breasts won’t decrease the woman’s current or future level of happiness, since she’s unconscious and will never know the difference. Paradoxes like this led me to discard utilitarianism in favor of Golden Rule ethics (see Gary Drescher’s Good and Real), which says that a good action is defined by whether you’d be okay with someone else taking the same action if you had to suffer the effects of that action, and a wrong action is one which doesn’t meet that standard. This position doesn’t prescribe any counter-intuitive ethical advice like utilitarianism does for the surgeon with the unconscious patient (The doctor wouldn’t want anyone to touch him inappropriately if he were under anaesthesia, so it would be wrong for him to do it to his patient).

    Looking back on utilitarianism, I understand it to be like Newtonian mechanics: it was ultimately wrong, but it was a good and useful rule of thumb to live by (after all, actions that don’t maximize happiness or minimize harm as well as alternative choices usually don’t conform to the Golden Rule, there are only a handful of exceptions that do). Although we will frequently have to modify or abandon our philosophy, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that with each new attempt we are approximating the truth a little better, taking a few steps closer to the truth. In the meantime, the useful approximations to the truth that we’ve come up with will serve a useful purpose in guiding our decision when we have to make choices were the true answer just isn’t clear to us. Though our approximations of the truth might guide us to the wrong answer sometimes, their successes in a large number of other situations demonstrates that they will have a good chance of showing us the right way when we’re facing a moral dilemma.

    Philosophy is needed for practical choices. Even though philosophical positions are frequently false, even the false positions can generate the right conclusion more often than not. Since a good practical decision only calls for the right conclusion to be reached (not for the underlying reasoning behind that conclusion to be correct), that means that we can place a good deal of trust in philosophy, even though it’ll be wrong most of the time. This situation isn’t really what we’d like, but it is very encouraging considering that we were just escaped the grips of philosophical nihilism.

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    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I used to blog at Answers in Genesis BUSTED! I took the creationist organization Answers in Genesis to pieces. I am the author of Atheism and Naturalism and Extraordinary Claims, Extraordinary Evidence, and the Resurrection of Jesus. I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, and Skepticism in general.

    20 comments

    1. I don’t think philosophy is pointless. I think it serves a crucial role in helping us to clarify the important questions. However, I do think it’s healthy to regard its answers with suspicion and humility until science, broadly construed, can provide empirical corroboration. Of course, some answers may never get that corroboration.

    2. Hi SAP,

      I don’t think its pointless either. The conclusion of my post is that philosophy is very much worthwhile even though we will have to change our answers to the big questions on a regular basis. I just chose the title “Philosophy is Pointless” because that is the proposition being discussed and because I thought it was a catchy title.

    3. Nicholas,
      Sorry, didn’t mean to imply that I thought that. I was really just concurring with your overall thesis and adding my bit about answers from science.

      Great blog btw!

    4. Victor Stenger made an interesting remark in his debate with Craig. His point was basically that you have to buy the premises first. After that, philosophy only leads you through a logical process of arriving at a conclusion based on those premises.

    5. What I have hoped might exist is a rigorous demonstration of philosophies via an online site where a person could choose among various assumptions representing certain philosophies, and see how those assumptions affect various (hundreds of) hypothetical situations. Or work the other direction, with the user selecting various conclusions, and then finding out what assumptions would have permitted drawing those conclusions (other than simply assuming them all).

      Even on a small scale, I imagine this would be a complex thing, as it would be affected by language, interpretation, culture, and laws. That might be why I can’t find one. Or it could be that each philosophy label in fact represents many small variations on a larger theme…

      But just playing with the various settings and seeing the outcomes immediately might lead people to a better understanding of the different philosophies, and the particular tweaks they might make to the one closest to their own thoughts.

      As to philosophy’s potential pointlessness, the thing is that philosophy does have a way of becoming science once enough is known about a subject. It’s good to have thought through the consequences of something prior to being faced with it.

      1. Hi Randy,

        I’ve had a similar idea: I’d like to see philosophers from around the world get together and begin to hash out debates between different frameworks, in hopes of arriving at some conclusion (finally). If you’ve ever seen an argument map, that is what I have in mind. I think settling in on an epistemology first would be a good idea (since philosophy of knowledge affects so much else), then we could move on to other things like ethics (assuming the debate on epistemology could ever be concluded).

    6. I don’t agree with your analogy, and I think my disagreement with it is relevant to your larger point.

      Newton wasn’t “proven wrong;” his equations are accurate as a first approximation that applies in the broadest category of everyday human experience, and only breaks down in extreme conditions outside of that everyday experience.

      Likewise, I don’t think utilitarianism has been “proven wrong” either. It still serves as a good first approximation. The fact that so many objections to utilitarianism likewise have to invoke extremely unlikely and bizarre scenarios suggests that it really does work well as a starting point for handling most of regular life.

    7. I have recently completed 12 hours of ethical analysis and by the end I was biting my tongue and faking the idea that the utilitarianism and ethics in general make sense. I got the A I wanted (my first class I got an C-) but, I also had to eat my pride become a complete phony to get it done.

      I read some Garrett Hardin and came to the realization that if ethics are in conflict with biology or ecology, depending on how you look at the world, then your ethics not wrong, it is they just don’t matter. Such that population crashes are the ugliest thing we can image but, it happens to hugely beneficial evolutionary process.

      It is our limited perceptions of reality that is the problem. Philosophy might evolve to fit the reality we live in someday. I think if were to reclassify and limited to the mold of social philosophy you would be able to get more traction on the ethics question.

    8. Is philosophy pointless?

      Are these pointless philosophical precepts?

      Philosophy teaches us to act, and not just to speak. It demands of everyone that he should actually live by his own standards, that his life should not be out of harmony with his words, and that his inner existence should be of one hue, and fully harmonious with all his outer activities, this, I say, is the highest duty and the highest proof there is real wisdom. [Seneca]

      But the doctrine of philosophers promises to give us security and peace in even these troubles. And what does it say? If you will listen to me, wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, you will not feel suffering, or anger, or compulsion, or hindrance, but you will pass your time without worries and free from hindrance. [Epictetus]

      You’ve been reading the wrong books (academic books in the tradition of Plato and Aristotle). The real philosophers were the Stoics, who applied a practical and heroic guide to life:

      THE STOIC is one who considers with neither panic nor indifference, that the field of possibilities available to him is large perhaps, or small perhaps, but closed. Whether because of the invariable habits of the gods, the invariable properties of matter or the invariable limits within which logic and mathematics deploy their forms he can hope for nothing that adequate method could not foresee. He need not despair, but the most fortunate resolution to any predicament will draw its elements still from a known set, and so will ideally occasion him no surprise. The analogies that underlie his thinking are physical, not biological: things are chosen shuffled combined: all motion rearranges a limited supply of energy. He has been typically, at typical points in history, an ethical theorist weighing duty against preference without extravagant expectations, and a hero, aware that in defying the gods he yet fulfils their will. [Hugh Kenner]

      To find out more, visit my website THE ARETE PUPPET THEATRE PROJECT.

    9. Great post, NC!

      I’m interested in your path from utilitarianism. Do you have some other counterexamples? I’m not 100% convinced by the surgeon one. If I was the surgeon, then I could probably not look the patient in the eye quite the same as if I were “innocent”. And even though this might result in only a tiny change in her well-being, it would be a change none-the-less. And possibly this action could stem from a greater problem (being a pervert in general), or it could be a step in that direction. I get what you’re saying though – it seems like this crime should be seen as quite serious, rather than something that might have some imperceptable consequence. (There’s also a sense in which it fails the golden rule example – I am not angry about anything anyone has done to me without my being aware of it – how could I?)

      Nothing I’ve said is meant to be a well-thought-out position btw – just asking some questions, and voicing some knee-jerk reactions. I really like this idea of philosophy being a series of approximations, and that we should remain less than 100% certain that our (current) views are correct. I guess I shouldn’t say that you’re definitely 100% correct about it, but I have a hunch you are 😉

      1. “And even though this might result in only a tiny change in her well-being, it would be a change none-the-less.”

        If she weren’t conscious of you doing it, she wouldn’t suffer any loss of well-being.

        “There’s also a sense in which it fails the golden rule example – I am not angry about anything anyone has done to me without my being aware of it – how could I?”

        Would you be angry if you shared a living space with someone, someone you were not attracted to at all, like a man in his sixties, and he came into your room in the dead of night and touched you? Even if there was no chance you’d be aware of it and you wouldn’t suffer harm?

    10. The golden ethics rule doesn’t really work any more than utilitarianism because it relies on people holding the same values and standards as you. For example it is not okay for a person, to spike someones drink with a recreational drug just because
      they, as a recreational drug taker, would not have a problem with this happening to them (they may enjoy the effects/be glad for the free drugs).

      1. The right to know and choose what’s going into your body is a more fundamental and more widely shared desire than the desire to take a recreational drug. If everyone took the golden rule so literally that they put mayonnaise on sandwich for someone who is allergic to it just because they like mayonnaise sandwiches, that would contradict the broader, common sense version of the golden rule I hold to: you wouldn’t want your sandwich maker adding an ingredient you hated just because the sandwich maker like it. Ethics must be about a duty to other people’s values (or something similar); “Mayonnaise on a sandwich” isn’t a value shared by everybody. But “Making my sandwich the way I like it” is, so the latter should be preferred over the former.

        1. This isn’t a good example of the flaw in the Golden Rule – type admonitions because the stakeholders do not have an equal investment in the outcome.
          The sandwich-maker’s investment was artificially inflated by a mere mis-wording, and the problem was easily solved with a revised wish:
          “Do unto others” in this case means “I will make you a sandwich you can enjoy, just as I wish you would make me a sandwich I can enjoy,”

          But in addition to using examples where the beneficiaries have an unequal stake in the outcome, the real hollowness of this type of moral preaching is also hidden when the sentiment is kept vague, distant, and abstract.

          On the other hand, the more it applies to specific cases, the more its uselessness manifests itself. Nor is narrowing it down to specifics a solution, because then it loses its character as a moral pronouncement and becomes no more than a bylaw or something, like a description of the fire codes regarding “blocking an exit” — where “blocking” and “exit” are defined in unreadable and excruciating detail.

          It has been long known that a law that says in its entirety “Don’t bock the exits” is useless as a law — in just the same way that a moral prescription that says “Do unto others … etc” is useless as a moral precept.

          1) So if the precept is to sound moral and good, it must be so general that it is useless as a guide for behavior in specific cases.
          2) If it is useable as a guide in specific cases, it stops being a moral precept and descends into a mere code of regulations and regimented behavior.

          What use is “Do unto others” when one is on a jury? In a firefight with Nazis?

          1. “What use is ‘Do unto others’ when one is on a jury? In a firefight with Nazis?”

            In each case, there are more people to consider than just the defendant and the Nazi. If you find a guilty defendant innocent, are you following the golden rule towards the victim or society at large? Similar concerns attend the nazi example.

            1. Well, that isn’t really as good a response as it sounds.

              For one thing, the Golden Rule is never construed to account for “the good of society” when it admonishes you to treat someone else properly.

              For another thing, no one knows what is best for society. If we did, we would all be in favor of doing it. There is a really credible case to be made that not all guilty people need to be in jail — or even that not all guilty people need to have been arrested.

              When I was a kid, a gang of boys (between the ages of 6 to 10 or so) from my neighborhood threw stones through the stained glass windows of the church on the corner. When they heard the police cars, they scattered; about half (say 5 or 6) were caught, and the rest were never caught.

              The families of the boys who were caught were fined, and the families of ALL the boys pitched in — but no one gave up the names of those lucky enough to have escaped the police. So the conviction for this weird and awful crime followed about half the boys, and the other half had no such stigma.

              I wonder if there was any difference in their life outcomes — some branded as bizarre and even blasphemous criminals, and some not.

              3) During a trial, many of the participants have a strong investment in the outcome. Who is the juror supposed to treat the way she would want to be treated? The judge just wants to go home. The victim wants some time alone with the man who ruined her life, manicure scissors. The reporter wants some lurid details. The criminal wants the jury to consider the exculpatory evidence. The criminal’s mother wants mercy and compassion. His lawyer wants to win, and the DA wants a good win/loss record. And so on.

              4) Anyone on trial can be presumed to want to be found not guilty. To change the Golden Rule to “Oh, well, sometimes it doesn’t really mean what you think! Sometimes it means, “Do unto society whatever is best for the social group as a whole.” is to kind of cheat a little.

              And the reason you need to cheat is because general statements of moral advice have this problem:
              1) When they are expressed so they SOUND good, they are too vague to be a guide to behavior in particular cases.
              2) When they are specific enough to be a set of instructions covering a particular case, they lose their status as “moral advice.”

    11. No matter which school of philosophy you are thinking about, it is wrong.

      The problem with the fake discipline of philosophy — like the other fake disciplines (theology and psychology) is that nothing they say is based on any kind of EVIDENCE.

      They are all just making it up.

      At the best, you can read some kind of personal opinion.
      But often utterances from these three fake professions are not even as good as that, and they just dissolve into gibberish.

      I can’t even imagine why anyone would bother to debate this foul nonsense.
      Do yourself a favor and take the dog out for a run or something else useful.

    12. You people are stupid. none of you cant undserstand the “golden rule”? which is a rip off of the bibles “law of the prophets”. do to others as you would want done to you. theres no greater law. no greater idea to live life by. empathy . sympathy. fuck off.

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