Sticking Up For Philosophy

Yesterday I again bumped up against the claim that philosophy does not produce answers. This issue is a constant source of irritation. It would not be rigorous to say that philosophy does not produce answers. It is something that is said all the time at all levels of philosophy, and it goes without saying in physics. Nevertheless, it would not be a rigorous statement. The truth is that not everyone agrees about this. In reality, it is more the case that some philosophers say they have found the answers, and all the rest don’t believe them.

Of course, they may not have found the answers. They may be deluded. This is irrelevant. What matters is whether we can actually prove that they are deluded. If we cannot do this, then we cannot prove that philosophy does not produce answers and should not be simply stating it as a fact.

So, can we prove that they are deluded. No, we cannot. Not all of them. The answers given to philosophical questions by the mystics of all recorded ages, cultures and lands are unfalsifiable in philosophy. This is how we can know that we have found the correct interpretation of their answers, that they are unfalsifiable. It is considered good practice in mysticism never to say anything that is falsifiable.

This immunity from prosecution would be both possible and necessary. It would be an ineluctable consequence of the nature of Reality that words that are strictly true will seem to be paradoxical, and it is very difficult to falsify a statement that seems to be paradoxical.

Heraclitus says we are and are not. So do Nagarjuna, Plotinus and Al-Halaj. This would be an answer to a number of philosophical questions, perhaps even all of them by extrapolation. Can we prove it is not a correct answer? If not, then we have no choice but to qualify any claim that philosophy does not produce answers with the phrase, ‘in my opinion’, or ‘so it seems to me’, or ‘according to the Western tradition of philosophical thought and most people working in the natural sciences at this time’.

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17 Responses to Sticking Up For Philosophy

  1. whitefrozen says:

    Wouldnt “we are and are not” be a contradiction rather than a paradox?

  2. PeterJ says:

    Hi WF. I can see that the use of the words can vary sometimes. I’m using ‘paradox’ exactly as Melhuish does in ‘The Paradoxical Universe’, so a paradox would often be the same as a contradiction. (The suggestion is not that H’s statement is a paradox, but that it looks like one). Lao Tsu could have said, ‘True words seem self-contradictory’, and it would have meant the same as ‘paradoxical’.. I agree that sometimes it might be important to distinguish between these two terms, but here I don’t think it matters.

      • PeterJ says:

        Please put me right if and when I’m wrong WF. I’m not foolproof and am well aware of it. At the moment I don’t see your objection, but I’m always very happy to be corrected.

        They are different things to me but the difference often doesn’t matter. A ‘contradiction’ would be an epistemological thing, as defined by Aristotle for the dialectic. A ‘true contradiction’ (using the language of Melhuish, Priest and others who explore these things) would be an ontological thing, something that exists in Reality A paradox would be a contradiction that is true, or that is supposed to be true. Russell’s paradox is only a contradiction, and it can be overcome, but it becomes a metaphysical paradox if we try to prove that the universe really is the set of all sets.

        The statement ‘we are and are not’ seems to be a dialectical contradiction, and because it is a statement about Reality it seems to be paradoxical. The two qualities come as a package. (In fact it is not either, but that’s a much bigger issue.)

        I’m not making pronouncements by the way, just giving my view in case it’s open to objections.

      • whitefrozen says:

        Oh, I wasn’t seeking to correct you – ‘hm’ was just me thinking.

        I’ll confess that I’m not going off of any official definitions of these words, so perhaps my cautious criticisms are misplaced. But here we go.

        Could a ‘true contradiction’ exist in reality? Granting the distinction between epistemic and ontological contradictions (a good distinction to make), it would seem that epistemic contradictions would almost fall under ‘paradoxes’ – i.e., things that appear to be but aren’t. That’s how I’ve always used ‘paradox’, at any rate. For example, Russells Paradox can be overcome because it is, in fact, a paradox, and not a contradiction.

        But if a thing really can both be and not be…I have to confess, I don’t much see how such a thing could be a real, ontological thing in the universe. The definition of contradiction seems to preclude such a things existence.

        But these are more open questions than criticisms.

      • PeterJ says:

        The question of whether a true contradiction is possible is debatable. I would say no. Most people would. Melhuish and Priest would say yes. This would be what they call ‘dialethism’. It has a handful of supporters.

        Heraclitus does not say that there are true contradictions. His statement is just the best one can do with language. What he is saying is that neither half of his statement is true on its own. Thus it is not a defined by Aristotle and it is not paradoxical. It just seems paradoxical. Mysticism does not ask us to believe contradictory things,

      • whitefrozen says:

        Hm. Doesn’t Parmenides show Heraclitus to be contradictory?

      • PeterJ says:

        Not as far as I know. Have you got a reference? I know that there are many different interpretations of their disagreements.

        EDIT: Update. Thanks for your comment. It led me to finding this.

      • whitefrozen says:

        I’m on mobile, so my response here isn’t going to be great, but that article appeared to pretty much state where I was going – Parmenides took Heraclitus as contradictory. Although it may be of significance that analytic philosophy appears to have dissolved the problem with formal/symbolic logic – showing that it’s a linguistic puzzle.

      • PeterJ says:

        That would one interpretation, certainly, but I’m with Heidegger. I see them as saying the same thing. Nagarjuna would say that one of them is speaking of the conventional world, and one of the Ultimate. They would both be correct, but Heraclitus views would be slightly less than fundamental, while Parmenides view would be slightly less than adequate. This would be Nagarjuna’s ‘Two Worlds’ or ‘Two Truths’. I see the whole thing as a misunderstanding.

        On this view, Parmenides would be correct to criticise a certain use of logic. The author of that article states that A cannot be both B and not-B, but he forgets to mention that this is only true where B and not-B are a true contradiction such that one is true and the other false. Heraclitus is saying that they are both false, as extreme views, and so no contradiction arises. Heraclitus would not be using logic in the way that Parmenides criticises. Heraclitus’ view would not require any true contradictions, but it gives rise to a seemingly paradoxical language. This is a strict rule. The proviso would be, this language will seem a lot less paradoxical if we study the small print of Aristotle’s rules for the dialectic.

      • whitefrozen says:

        Interesting interpretation. I’ll have to think on this.

  3. It really depends on what you mean by answers. In the post you’re referring to (I’m assuming mine on Neil DeGrasse Tyson) I used the word in the context he used it – in terms of material facts about the natural world. Philosophy/rational metaphysics can predict possible answers of this sort, but those predictions are contingent upon core assumptions about materiality (yes, math found Neptune, but it also predicted Vulcan, which turned out not to be there).

    There are a lot of different ways to understand what an “answer” consists of, I’ll grant. I tend to think that science as a method for finding the kinds of answers I refer to above /is/ one of the “answers” that philosophy provided, but for the purposes of commenting on NDGT, I was addressing the kind of “answers” he clearly values above all others.

  4. PeterJ says:

    Hi Michelle – My profuse apologies. I meet this philosophical claim about twenty times a day, usually bluntly stated as if it is a known fact, and your very gently and probably accidentally implied version of it was not at all what I had in mind when I used the word ‘irritation;. I’m not even sure we don’t agree about all this. It was just that our chat made me think of posting something here.

    I completely forgot how the opening comment would look to you, which was incredibly stupid of me. In fact I probably came across this claim, made explicitly or implicitly, many times yesterday, I certainly have today, and I’m sure I will again tomorrow. My apologies for being so clumsy. . .

    • Oh no apologies necessary, I enjoyed your post and found your commentary thought-provoking. Blog writing is tricky business, and I often lose precision in my attempt to be accessible, and nuance in my attempt to be concise, so I’m happy to continue the conversation. I completely understand your frustration. I teach philosophy and ethics classes that are required for all students, regardless of major, so I’m constantly wrestling with the best way to answer it.

  5. PeterJ says:

    Phew. Thanks for your tolerance. A philosophy teacher then. I hadn’t spotted that you taught. I find the idea of teaching philosophy to a young audience a fascinating challenge, especially if some are there under duress. I assume it must be either very interesting or deadly dull, depending on the students. .

    • It’s definitely a challenge, but it’s always interesting. The hardest part is getting them to realize that when I ask them what they think, I’m serious – they often think that I’m looking for something in particular, or else looking for their throwaway opinion. The best “trick” I’ve come up with is to tell them to answer the question as if they were the teachers and I needed them to explain things to me. And what that yields is often creative, but never dull!

      • PeterJ says:

        A fascinating challenge. Still, in my experience teenagers, on average, have more interest in these things than adults.

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