Tuesday, September 11, 2007

First, let me say that when it comes to Williamson’s big project of revising and improving the methodology of philosophy, nobody is more on board than I. I mention this because some who know me may take (dismiss?) my following comments as general anti-metaphysical ones. To do so is to oversimplify my motives.

"Philosophers of science know the dangers of moralizing from first principles on how a discipline should ideally be pursued without respecting how it currently is pursued; the same lesson applies to the philosophy of philosophy. (Intro p.7)"

There’s a reason why philosophers of science respect how science is actually performed, and don’t moralize against it; they recognize that it has been tremendously successful and you don’t fix something that isn’t broken. Compared to the philosophy of philosophy, the analogy may not be apt. Does anyone claim that philosophy has been tremendously successful? I should hope not, even Williamson doesn’t claim this. It hasn’t been futile, certainly not, but it can’t make the same claim to success as scientific methodology can. Because of this difference, the willingness to tweak, tinker, or even seriously revise the philosophical methodology cannot be ruled out ‘just because phil sci doesn’t.’

“We can intelligibly ask what bread is made of, or what houses are made of, but to ask what things in general are made of is senseless, some suggest, because the question is posed without any conception of how to verify an answer... but we know now that in at least one important respect [the mockers and doubters] were wrong. With however much confusion, Thales and the rest were asking one of the best questions ever to have been asked, a question that has painfully led to much of modern science. To have abandoned it two and a half thousand years ago on grounds of its conceptual incoherence or whatever would have been a feeble and unnecessary surrender to despair, philistinism, cowardice or indolence. (Afterword p.1)”

I assume when he mentions ‘much of modern science’ in this context he is referring to subatomic physics/chemistry/biology.

When the mockers and doubters were saying ‘Hey, study bread and houses instead,’ it was the study of those things which led to the current state of those sciences. The scientists of the time, and all those time from then until now, have tried to answer questions about what specific things (read: not the general things) are made of. They would have started with bread and houses, then, once they knew some stuff about them, they asked what those newly discovered things were made of, and so on.

The above sciences have not advanced by trying to do string theory before learning the intermediate biology, chemistry, subatomic physics, and quantum mechanics. So his statement that 2500 years ago, abandoning the inquiry of what things are generally would be cowardly and indolent, well, it may have been those things, but it was also immensely productive in providing explanatory power. That subatomic physics is now in a place where it can talk about what things at a very basic level (string theory?) is only *because* 2500 years they decided to focus on the accessible question of bread and houses.

So when he says the ‘what things are generally’ question led to modern science, I think he’s off. It has not led to success by asking the same question with some clarifications. Abandoning this question for more accessible questions led to modern science via incremental successes. The moral to be drawn here is, I think, not that philosophy was always asking a good question which required clarification, but that there’s a time and place for questions, and restricting oneself to accessible questions is the way to the advancement of knowledge.

I won’t make too much of this. His point that clarifying the question is important to progress is itself tremendously important. However, I just wished to add that sometimes abandoning inaccessible questions (which even with clarification are still inaccessible) for accessible ones is important too.

The last 2 pages of the afterword gave me goosebumps.

1 comment:

Dan said...

I'm not dissagreeing with you per-se (at least not yet), however I think it would be helpfull if a couple things were clarified.

I rarely hear different disciplines compared with respect to success. Could you expound on the criterion used? I see three possible criterion one could judge the success of a science by:
1) predictive power
2) insight into the nature of its subject matter
3) ability to yeild technologies and techniques applicable to life

(1) and (3) seem to be closely related. If you have a technology, it better be reliable (and thus predictable). So, on the fly, I'd say (3) -> (1) in some sense. (2) is left out there unrelated. As far as I can tell, the empirical sciences excell at (1) (and yeild much opportunity for (3). The applied sciences (medicine, engineering etc.) excell at (3), from borrowing the knowledge gained from the empirical sciences.
On the other hand, the concern of Math/Philosophy/Logic would be (2). Math is more applicable of course, but ask any current mathematician if he thinks his work will be applied, the answer will probably be something like "maybe 200 years from now".

So how well is philosophy doing at (2)? It seems to me, everyone has a different answer to that. I think this comes from the fact that there are radically different views on what the methodology should be. If different strands of philosophy are divided by the methods employed, it seems (from my rather narrow view) that certain strands have had great success, progress that's slow but steady. It appears they haven't since they still have methodological dissagreement with other strands. The success of philosophy doesn't look so hot, because proponents of different methodoligies point their fingers and each other and say "yes, but you can't do that!". Don't get me wrong, it's a worthwhile debate and definitely pivotal in philosophy (we need to study inquiry as well as reality), but it shouldn't imply that progress hasn't been made.
As for the empirical sciences contribution toward (2), that's also controversial. String theory is falling into disrepute by many physicists. The two main physical theories are incompatible (though their predictive power is impressive). I have no doubt that they provide usefull insight into many things, but that success can be judged as well.
I guess my main point here is similar to Williamsons, let scientists do science and let philosophers do philosophy.
Ok, I guess I did take a stand here, however a clarification on the criterion of success you had in mind would still be helpfull.