Philosophy versus science versus politics

Philosophy can often be obscure. But is that because it’s complex, or made so? Bernard Laguerre/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

We might hope that good arguments will eventually drive out bad arguments – in what Timothy Williamson calls “a reverse analogue of Gresham’s Law” – and we might want (almost?) complete freedom for ideas and arguments, rather than suppressing potentially valuable ones.

Unfortunately, it takes honesty and effort before the good arguments can defeat the bad.

Williamson on philosophy and science

In a field such as philosophy, the reverse Gresham’s Law analogue may be too optimistic, as Williamson suggests.

Williamson points out that very often a philosopher profoundly wants one answer rather than another to be the right one. He or she may thus be predisposed to accept certain arguments and to reject others. If the level of obscurity is high in a particular field of discussion (as will almost always be the case with philosophical controversies), “wishful thinking may be more powerful than the ability to distinguish good arguments from bad”. So much so “that convergence in the evaluation of arguments never occurs.”

Williamson has a compelling point. Part of the seemingly intractable dissensus in philosophy comes from motivated reasoning about the issues. There is a potential for intellectual disaster in the combination of: 1) strong preferences for certain conclusions; and 2) very broad latitude for disagreement about the evidence and the arguments.

This helps to explain why many philosophical disagreements appear to be, for practical purposes, intractable. In such cases, rival philosophical theories may become increasingly sophisticated, and yet none can obtain a conclusive victory over its rivals. As a result, philosophical investigation does not converge on robust findings. A sort of progress may result, but not in the same way as in the natural sciences.

By way of comparison, Williamson imagines a difficult scientific dispute. Two rival theories may have committed proponents “who have invested much time, energy, and emotion”, and only high-order experimental skills can decide which theory is correct. If the standards of the relevant scientific community are high enough in terms of conscientiousness and accuracy, the truth will eventually prevail. But if the scientific community is just a bit more tolerant of what Williamson calls “sloppiness and rhetorical obfuscation” both rival theories may survive indefinitely, with neither ever being decisively refuted.

Timothy Williamson’s book raises some interesting questions about philosophy itself. Wiley

All that’s required for things to go wrong is a bit less care in protecting samples from impurity, a bit more preparedness to accept ad hoc hypotheses, a bit more swiftness in dismissing opposing arguments as question-begging. “A small difference in how carefully standards are applied can make a large difference between eventual convergence and eventual divergence”, he says.

For Williamson, the moral of the story is that philosophy has more chance of making progress if philosophers are rigorous and more demanding of themselves, and if they are open to being wrong. Much philosophical work, he thinks, is shoddy, vague, impatient and careless in checking details.

It may be protected from refutation by rhetorical techniques such as “pretentiousness, allusiveness, gnomic concision, or winning informality.” Williamson prefers philosophy that is patient, precise, rigorously argued, and carefully explained, even at the risk of seeming boring or pedantic. As he puts it, “Pedantry is a fault on the right side.”

An aspiration for philosophy

I think there’s something in this – an element of truth in Williamson’s analysis. Admittedly, the kind of work that he is advocating may not be easily accessible to the general educated public (although any difficulty of style would be from the real complexities of the subject matter, rather than an attempt to impress with a dazzling performance).

It’s also possible that there are other and deeper problems for philosophy that hinder its progress. Nonetheless, the discipline is marked by emotional investments in many proposed conclusions, together with characteristics that make it easy for emotionally motivated reasoners to evade refutation.

If we want to make more obvious progress in philosophy, we had better try to counter these factors. At a minimum that will involve openness to being wrong and to changing our minds. It will mean avoiding bluster, rhetorical zingers, general sloppiness and the protection that comes from making vague or equivocal claims.

This can all be difficult. Even with the best of intentions, we will often fail to meet the highest available standards, but we can at least try to do so. Imperfection is inevitable, but we needn’t indulge our urges to protect emotionally favoured theories. We can aspire to something better.

Politics, intellectual honesty, and discussion in the public square

There is one obvious area of discussion in modern democracies where the intellectual rigour commended by Williamson – which he sees as prevalent in the sciences and as a worthy aspiration for philosophers – is given almost no credence. I’m referring to the claims made by rivals in democratic party politics.

Here, the aim is usually to survive and prevail at all costs. Ideas are protected through sloppiness, rhetoric and even outright distortion of the facts, and opponents are viewed as enemies to be defeated. Purity of adherence to a “party line” is frequently enforced, and internal dissenters are treated as heretics. All too often, they are thought to deserve the most personal, microscopic and embarrassing scrutiny. It may culminate in ostracism, orchestrated smearing and other punishments.

This is clearly not a recipe for finding the truth. Whatever failures of intellectual dishonesty are shown by philosophers, they are usually very subtle compared to those exhibited during party political struggles.

I doubt that we can greatly change the nature of party political debate, though we can certainly call for more intellectual honesty and for less of the distortion that comes from political Manichaeism. Even identifying the prevalence of political Manichaeism – and making it more widely known – is a worthwhile start.

Greatly changing the nature of party political debate may be difficult because emotions run high. Losing may be seen as socially catastrophic, and comprehensive worldviews are engaged. By its very nature, this sort of debate is aimed at obtaining power rather than inquiring into the truth. Political rhetoric appeals to the hearts and minds – but especially the hearts – of mass electorates. It has an inevitable tendency in the direction of propaganda.

To some extent, we are forced to accept robust, even brutal, debate over party political issues. When we do so, however, we can at least recognise it as exceptional, rather than as a model for debate in other areas. It should not become the template for more general cultural and moral discussions – or even broadly political discussions – and we are right to protest when we see it becoming so.

It’s an ugly spectacle when party politics proceeds with each side attempting to claim scalps – demonizing opponents, attempting to embarrass them or to present them as somehow disgraced, forcing them, if at all possible, to resign from office – rather than seeking the truth.

It’s an even more worrying spectacle when wider debate in the public square is carried on in much the same way. We should be dissatisfied when journalists, literary and cultural critics, supposedly serious bloggers, and academics – and other contributors to the public culture who are not party politicians – mimic party politicians’ standards.

If anything, our politicians need to be nudged toward better standards. But even if that is unrealistic, we don’t have to adopt them as role models. Instead, we can seek standards of care, patience, rigour and honesty. We can avoid engaging in the daily pile-ons, ostracisms, smear campaigns, and all the other tactics that amount to taking scalps rather than honestly discussing issues and examining arguments. We can, furthermore, look for ways to support individuals who have been isolated and unfairly targeted.

High standards

At election time, we may have to vote for one political party or another, or else not vote (formally) at all. But in the rest of our lives, we can often suspend judgement on genuinely difficult issues. We can take intellectual opponents’ arguments seriously, and we can develop views that don’t align with any of the various off-the-shelf ones currently available.

More plainly, we can think for ourselves on matters of philosophical, moral, cultural and political controversy. Importantly, we can encourage others to do the same, rather than trying to punish them for disagreeing with us.

Party politicians are necessary, or at least they are better than any obvious alternatives (hereditary despots, anyone?). But they should never be regarded as role models for the rest of us.

Timothy Williamson asks for extremely high intellectual standards that may not be fully achievable even within philosophy, let alone in broader public discussion. We can, however, aspire to something like them, rather than indulging in the worst – in tribal and Manichaean – alternatives.

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