Philosophers Don't Just Make It Up As They Go
    By Massimo Pigliucci | June 19th 2008 10:22 AM | 22 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Massimo

    Massimo Pigliucci is Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York.

    His research focuses on the structure of evolutionary


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    Yesterday I was facilitating a philosophy discussion at the New York Society for Ethical Culture when I found myself all of a sudden defending philosophy from the accusation that it’s all made up stuff. Two of the participants raised the objection from different perspectives, both representing persistent misconceptions concerning how philosophers go about doing their business.

    The first criticism is that philosophy can never settle anything because, unlike science, it does not rely on experimental evidence. Granted, philosophers don’t do experiments (other than the very inexpensive thought variety), but then again philosophy isn’t science, so it seems odd to accuse philosophers of not doing what scientists do. (Then again, check out the experimental philosophy web site!)

    Philosophers have other ways of settling disputes and advancing their discipline, and these ways make use of the rules of rational discourse and logic. For instance, just like no self-respecting scientist would be caught dead conducting an experiment with a statistically flawed design (say, the lack of a control), so no professional philosopher wants to be found engaging in a logical fallacy. And logical fallacies are even more clearly defined and understood than most experimental protocols.

    Moreover, philosophers are not in the business of studying the natural world, so “experiments” in the standard scientific sense would simply be inappropriate. The domain of philosophy ranges over issues concerning the nature of reality (metaphysics), of values (ethics), of knowledge (epistemology), and of art (aesthetics), to name a few. Now, what sort of experiment could possibly be illuminating questions of metaphysics? How would you settle, on scientific grounds, the question of whether there is a real physical world out there, as opposed to all of us being part of the thoughts of a cosmic being, or perhaps simply the holograms of a simulation that someone is playing as a video game? This is not to say that philosophers should ignore scientific findings (e.g., on how human brains make moral decisions), and in fact they do not. But philosophical inquiry has a different enough nature from scientific inquiry that there is no common methodological standard of progress, one cannot be said to be “better” than the other any more than soccer can be said to be better than baseball. They are just different sorts of games.

    Now to the second criticism: philosophers cannot be objective or detached from the issues they debate, and besides they have to build their arguments on the basis of one assumption or another, so the exercise amounts to just telling whatever story one prefers. Again, the analysis, I think, misses the mark. There is no question that philosophers are human beings, and as such they tend to seek the same golden trio that most other people (including scientists, by the way) go after: glory, money, and sex, not necessarily in that order.

    But philosophical discourse is founded on the same attitude that scientists have of valuing reciprocal criticism and opening one’s arguments to rebuttal and possible refutation. Unlike the case of religion, for instance, philosophers can’t say “I’m right because God told me so,” or “I’m right because it’s written in a book,” regardless of who the author of that book happens to be (that, incidentally, would be a logical fallacy, known as an argument from authority). No, philosophers have to say “I think I am right because...” and carefully fill the blanks with cogent logic, a logic that is mercilessly put under the microscope by their colleagues, because that’s how one gets to publish and obtain tenure (some glory, though usually little money and perfectly ordinary amounts of sex).

    As for making assumptions, those can, again, be explored and justified by reason. Besides, scientists have to make a lot of assumptions before proceeding with their work as well, and ironically some of those assumptions are inherently philosophical in nature (like the empirically unverifiable idea that the world is real).

    The fact that philosophers continually have to explain and justify themselves, while scientists usually don’t, is a peculiar result of the all-American anti-intellectualism that is so prominent on this side of the pond (in Europe philosophers pack bookstores for readings and discussions, and they regularly appear on or host talk shows -- can you imagine a philosopher on The View? or Regis and Kelly?). Of course, science itself sometimes does not escape anti-intellectual reactions (think of the never ending “controversy” about evolution), but at least science is generally granted the attribute of useful and therefore tolerated as a (rather expensive) academic exercise.

    But a society that does not value critical thinking, the laying out of rational arguments, and the use of logic in debating its issues, is a society in decline and risking a return to obscurantism. The irony here is that the most important documents regulating American life, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, were in fact a direct product of the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and were drafted by people like Thomas Jefferson, with a very keen interest in philosophy and rational discourse. Of course, the Constitution has been under constant assault over the past few decades, in synch with the rising tide of religious fundamentalism and irrationalism. Appreciating what philosophy is about and how it works may make a significant contribution toward reversing that tide.


    Moreover, philosophers are not in the business of studying the natural world, so “experiments” in the standard scientific sense would simply be inappropriate.

    What other world is there to study? Besides, the greatest philosophers such as Aristotle, Newton, and Hume *did* consider themselves in the business of studying the natural world. Science grew out of the fruitful parts of philosophy that these great thinkers created.

    Now, what sort of experiment could possibly be illuminating questions of metaphysics? How would you settle, on scientific grounds, the question of whether there is a real physical world out there, as opposed to all of us being part of the thoughts of a cosmic being, or perhaps simply the holograms of a simulation that someone is playing as a video game?

    None. That's exactly why, although such questions might be amusing to ponder after a few beers or be the basis of escapist movies like "The Matrix", they aren't worthy of serious study. Nobody, whether a ten year old child or a tenured philosopher, has (or can have) any genuine insight into the "is the world real?" question. It's intellectually empty.

    Philosophy in order to be relevant needs to address serious questions in the real world. As far as I can tell, you have decided to address such a topic, evolutionary biology, yourself, so I fail to understand why you are defending the rubbish forms of philosophy that deal with solipsism and other metaphysical nonsense.

    To Jonathan: Why do you restrict possibilities of understanding ourselves through introspection of self?

    I guess "serious" study to you is more valuable than non-serious study which i prefer, as i like to study with a more open minded attitude.

    Evidently, you do not know genuine insight or have little to no sense of what it means to be intellectually full. Here's where i shed a tear for you out of pity. Serious questions? Why is philosophy so serious to you?

    Philosophy is so amazing. I am taking the intro course as of now in my college and I cannot put the book down. I thought it would be boring because that is what most people say but it is truly very fascinating.

    Thank you, Massimo.

    As an academic philosopher, I am continuously explaining the purpose and value of philosophy to undergraduate students who have never been exposed to philosophical questions or to critical thinking. Most students I encounter enter class with the prejudice that only empirical science can discover objective truth and everything else is just a matter of personal "opinion" without reason or evidence. Yet, the empirical sciences are the application of a particular method for investigating a particular aspect of reality, the physical or natural world. The empirical method is the method particularly well-suited for discovering the truth of the natural world. But there are other aspects of reality that require different methods to discover their truths. For example, mathematics is not an empirical science; it is the application of rigorous logic to abstract concepts. Is there then no truth in mathematics? Is it just "rubbish forms" of metaphysics?

    The truth is that the rational human mind employs a variety of methods to different fields of inquiry. The mistake or misunderstanding so frequently found in contemporary society is the belief that one method answers all questions or is applicable to all fields. And if that method doesn't answer all questions, then the next mistake is to declare those vexing questions to be false, meaningless, nonsense, and so on. Whether these beliefs are founded on ignorance, anti-intellectualism of some sort, or a naturalistic prejudice, they are mistakes, albeit widespread mistakes.

    We need to understand that human reason employs different rules and standards of proof suitable to different areas of our lives. The example that comes to mind to illustrate this point is the legal trial. Here the goal is--ideally--to determine the truth of a person's guilt or innocence by critically examining the arguments for each side. The arguments are based upon reasons of various kinds. Physical evidence and scientific conclusions are obviously very strong reasons for determining the verdict. But they are not the only kinds of reasons employing by the attorneys. Eyewitness testimony, character witnesses, and proof of motive are also important reasons to find a person either guilty or innocent. While these do not fall under the category of physical evidence, we often consider them indispensable to reaching a verdict. The rational mind considers many kinds of reasons and weighs each according to their own particular strengths when arriving at a conclusion.

    If we read the philosophers without prejudices, we may avoid some of these mistakes discusses here. Aristotle wrote a very long time ago, "it is the mark of an educated man to require, in each kind of inquiry, just so much exactness as the subject admits of: it is equally absurd to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician, and to demand scientific proof from an orator" (1094b5)

    I don't normally respond to people who comment days after I do, but I think it is still worth clarifying my point. I'm not attacking philosophy in general; after all science *is* part of philosophy; as I'm sure you know, scientists used to call themselves "natural philosophers".

    However, I really don't see how questions like "whether there is a real physical world out there, as opposed to all of us being part of the thoughts of a cosmic being", etc. are in any way different or worthy of any more respect than empty theological questions like "How many angels can dance on a head of a pin?" or "Can God create a rock so heavy He can't lift it?" Medieval scholastics knew a lot of logic; the problem was that without empirical evidence of gods or angels, nothing they could possibly write on the topic could be at all useful.

    But I know perfectly well that many modern philosophers (including Massimo, David Hull, Michael Ruse, etc.) *don't* go around worrying about whether the world is real or a god's dream and are instead dealing with answerable questions dealing with science and its methods; so I'm surprised that he'd bring up metaphysics and the "is the world real?" question -- it's exactly chestnuts like that which cause the allergic reaction against philosophy that Massimo describes scientists having.

    I have actually taken an little Philosophy course in the philosophy of matrix (the movie). Even if I didn’t take it to seriously I actually learned a lot about what science is about and question about if the table in front of me is more real than a electromagnetic field. I think that al scientist should read some philosophy especially the Philosophy of science so they get’s more humble and not so hard core fans of Popper. It is actually important to understand the ground assumptions of what you are working with in natural science it is to describe the outer reality so there are relevant questions. And it would stop some meaningless arguments between scientists that only occur for there bad knowledge in philosophy. Try it yourself it actually kind of fun and it doesn’t hurt

    Philosophy is not made up! It is a definitive train of thought. However, that train of thought sparked from an idea or a concept. Philosophy is humans ultimate display of logic and reasoning abilities.

    Radio waves are a reality? Really?

    Wow, these sites always attract nuts. Big, salty nuts.

    Steve Davis
    Jonathon began by asking of the natural world "What other world is there to study?" Which is another way of saying there is no other reality to study. Radio waves have been a reality from the beginning, yet have only recently become a reality for us. It would be foolish to assume that no further realities await discovery.
    Poor example. Radio waves were only recently discovered, but they're still part of the reality of the Natural World; and presuming that they've always been here, they've always been part of that same reality. Just because we're not yet cognizant of something doesn't make it "another reality". If it plays a role in the World, if there's a difference between the World with it and the World without it, then it's part of the reality that we deal with on its own terms.

    In fact, I'll wager ANYTHING that no one has ever in all of history discovered something that was off somewhere in another reality. There is only one reality for us to study: the one in which we find ourselves.

    this was pretty interesting, thanks for posting

    Likewise, modern physical theories are much more philosophical than empirical. I tend to think of theoretical physicists as natural philosophers. lol

    Wonderful entry, by the way. :)
    Thank you, Massimo. As one with a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), I know only too well that philosophers don't just make it up as they go along. I would like to see the critic here get through some of the advanced courses in logic that I had to take in order to earn my degree. And if he would bother to read Aristotle's Politics, he would know that it is just as relevant today as it was when Aristotle wrote it. In fact, he would think that he was reading about our own times, if he didn't already know that it had been written by Aristotle.

    My training in philosophy gave me the logical and analytical skills to go on to study other things such as astronomy, geology and paleontology. It also gave me the critical thinking skills to make decisions about such important things like say, oh..................elections! It has help me to discern fact from fiction and to assess information in a rational and analytical way.

    And, had it not been for my background in natural philosophy, the science and mathematics that I have learned over the years would not have had nearly as much meaning for me as they do; the only way to put things in the present in proper perspective is to know from whence they came.

    Eric F. Diaz
    the question is not "how do they do it?". the question is whether at this point in history, now that "philosophy" has been separated from natural philosophy (science) and worldly philosophy (social science), do philosophers do anything at all?

    i mean, really. metaphysics? ethics? it's fun gassing about that stuff, but by the time you've agreed on definitions and axioms everything is basically done, and differences in axioms and definitions are irreducible.

    studying sophistries may be a good way to keep your brain moving, but it's like lifting weights. the effort is not "work" in the sense of accomplishing anything.

    Being able to do philosophy is reward enough. Anyone who denies the power of the art of reason must be blessed with an internal ability to do, well, reason. Anyone who truly understands the limits of philosophy also understands the limits of understanding. Anyone who agrees on definitions, has, just by definiing anything, (say, "shame,") has done a service, if correct. Anyone who has actually used a tool to prove an idea, has done work. If that work has been shared with others, the work continues. If that work requires correction or elaboration, the work continues. If that work influences or changes ideas the work doubles. Philosophy is not done by a blindfolded person spinning alone in a cave. It is done by brave people who understand they are entering a black hole, there is no escape unless you find a way, which of course, you aren't going to. The accomplishments of philosophy are reiterated everytime someone wins an argument, proves a point, or even just "considers well."
    All right. I'll stand-up for the philosopher bashers then. Philosophy doesn't deal with the natural world? Since when? - I guess you've never heard of the Philosophy of Science archive over at the University of Pittsburgh. As someone who does deal with the natural world, I took quite enough time having to slog through the nonsense of Zeno, Kant, Leibniz, and misapplications of Plato by Julian Barbour, all over whether time exists or not, just so that my research would be complete. Critical thinking? If anyone had done critical thinking over things such as Zeno's Paradox and Kant's claim that you can't tell a right hand from a left one in space, I wouldn't have had so much work to do. 

    All of the arguments against the reality of time can be traced back to philosophers and all of them are wrong. All of them.

    And then there's that infamous question about whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound if there's no one around to hear it. Give me a break. As if that's supposed to require deep contemplation.

    Philosophers shouldn't deal with the natural world, but unfortunately they always have.

    Philosophy when it is done well can be enlightening. When it's not, it's like a dog that won't quite humping your leg.

    Sure, philosophy has its garbage. But so does every other discipline. You forget that Kant was the first to conceive of the idea that not only do we live in an "island universe" (i.e. the Milky Way galaxy) but that there were other "island universes" (i.e. galaxies) like our own outside of our galaxy, centuries before Edwin Hubble proved it. He sure wasn't wrong about that!

    You don't think other disciplines have had their fair share of screw-ups! Take Stephen Hawking for example, who thought that if the universe stopped expanding and started contracting that time would flow backwards--that is until a graduate student of his found a really BIG error in his equations. And, you talk about philosophers getting time wrong?
    You're talking to the guy that has caught Hawking errors before. In fact, the first one was about that stupid time reversal error based on Gold's theory. In fact, I'll be posting a paper on why Hawking never should have come to that conclusion in the first place - mathematical error or not. In other words, my paper will show errors that no one else caught that were in the foundations of the theory to begin with. That's what I'm good at - seeing where other big thinkers have screwed-up, or missed important details, usually because I'm coming at a problem from a different perspective. 

    My beef with philosophy is that so many philosophers have tried to hold sway over issues like time and what they've come up with has been pure s#!t. Sure, many of them have been right on some things, it's just that in the area I care about, they have a terrible track record, which has been allowed to stand because everyone has given them slack instead of looking at what they've said with any kind of rigor. On top of that, a number of them have come at their philosophical conclusions because of their own religious proclivities.

    So, I'm not giving science a blank check and no credit to philosophy. I'm just saying that when I see things like "philosophers are not in the business of studying the natural world" then my response is to back hand that comment into next Tuesday, because it's not true. If it was, I wouldn't have had to spend as much time and work deconstructing Julian Barbour's fantasy theory of a timeless Platonia because most of it was based on ideas he had gleaned from philosophers whose work I then had to analyze before I could move forward. If time isn't part of the "natural world" then I don't know what is.

    What was it that Massimo said that philosophers were getting accused of? Making things up as they go?

    You actually went back and analyzed all that crap because J. Barbour drops big names every other line? You seriously need to become more confident in throwing some stuff into the trash much earlier - life is too short. I read about one page of Barbour; plenty enough to decide to read something else instead.
    One issue I disagree with however - you cannot call Zeno an idiot. His paradoxes were a defense of Parmenides and can only be understood in that context. After all, he was right, the arrow does stand still, regardless, whether you look at it being a slice overlapping with your x-axis or whether you see the arrow as its whole space-time history. Zeno never intended to claim more than this (= the equivalent of this expressible in his time, which did obviously not have the language/insight etc to express it well).
    Dear Sascha:
    I don't know what you do for a living but researching the nature of time is part of my career. As such I can ill afford to take your approach as I doubt you would be able to authoritatively refute something that you have not read. Despite how Barbour may sound, when it comes to his understanding of physics in general, he is no slouch. In fact, he just made $90,000+ in grant money to twaddle into his time research. As someone who intends to engage his theories professionally, my priorities on what I spend my time on, I'm sure, are the reverse of yours.

    As for Zeno, regardless what his intentions were, his statements were wrong and unlike some experts claim, you don't need calculus to show why things like Achilles and the Tortoise are just mind games and have no relationship to the real world. The arrow is never still, BTW, unless the rest of its frame of reference is still as well. But to understand why would require studying things, even those you might not agree with, well beyond the first page...

    @Marshall Barnes

    Your beef seems to be with particular philosophers, not philosophy, so why preface your comments with an indication that you will stand up for the "philosophy bashers"? Seems like a rash generalisation to me, based on how the views of particular philosophers working within a different historical context has been, on your view, erroneously kept alive by other philosophers. Play the ball, not the man.

    Yet you bash philosophy in general? The article was about philosophy as a practice, not merely how it relates to your particular field. I believe philosophers would call that a hasty generalisation.

    @Anonymous (not verified) | 04/19/12 | 21:27 PM