Ontological naturalism is the view that only natural stuff exists (stuff that has some special connection to natural science). The term ‘naturalism’ refers to the methods of natural science in addition to the natural stuff that scientists are though to study. A lot of philosophers say that they are ontological naturalists (of at least some type), but what exactly is such a view really about? Such a view seems to require that we can identify what’s natural and what’s not. And since philosophers don’t agree about what counts as natural, there are actually multiple types of ontological naturalism. I’m not convinced that such a distinction means much of anything, but I can sympathize with certain types of ontological naturalism more than others. (more…)
November 1, 2013
September 30, 2013
I have defined several new philosophically-related terms for the Comprehensible Philosophy Dictionary. Some of these are words I’ve already defined before but have been significantly improved. You can let me know if you think any of the terms need further clarification or if any need improvement for any other reason. (more…)
September 22, 2013
I will discuss two related philosophical questions related two death: One, is death bad? Two, how should we feel about death? (more…)
September 6, 2013
August 30, 2013
Manipulative tactics are those used to trick people into believing something rather than to persuade people to believe something rationally. Informal fallacies are errors in reasoning that are often used as manipulative tactics, but sometimes we can use a manipulative tactic without actually committing an error in reasoning. Although informal fallacies are only one type of manipulative tactic, philosophers often treat them as though they were the same thing. Just about every type of manipulative tactic has a corresponding fallacy. I will give examples of various manipulative tactics and corresponding fallacies. I hope to help make it clear that the difference between manipulative tactics and fallacies is generally not important enough to worry about. Some people might defend a manipulative tactic by insisting it’s “not actually fallacious,” but that reply would usually miss the point. (more…)
August 23, 2013
The most popular page on this site has been Philosophy is Important for quite some time, but that page has now been replaced with a new piece I recently wrote (that uses the same name). I was not convinced that the old piece deserved all the attention it got, but it is certainly an important issue.
The older piece that used to be there is now a PDF and can be seen here: 11 Reasons Philosophy is Important.
August 20, 2013
A lot of people accuse those who are dismissive of non-scientific fields of study of having scientistic views. This raises important questions—Is science always the only legitimate source of knowledge? Could philosophy ever be a source of knowledge?
The main issue concerning scientism that I’m interested in is the scientistic view that philosophy has little to nothing it can contribute. For example, in 2011 Stephen Hawking said, “[P]hilosophy is dead… philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.”1 And in 2012 Lawrence Krauss said, “[S]cience progresses and philosophy doesn’t.”2
Even so, anti-philosophical views are not the only types of scientism, and I believe that some types of scientism can be explicitly favorable to philosophy. What exactly is scientism? I will define and categorize various types of scientism. (more…)
August 13, 2013
I have defined several new philosophically-related terms for the Comprehensible Philosophy Dictionary. You can let me know if you think any of the terms need further clarification or if any need improvement for any other reason. (more…)
July 16, 2013
Should we ever trust anyone’s expertise? The “appeal to authority” is a well-known fallacy (nonrational way to reason) and some people claim that all appeals to authority are fallacious. I was once told that my religion is science because I trust the expert opinion of scientists, so apparently that person doesn’t think scientists should be trusted. I will explain why we should often trust expert opinion and we have little choice but to often do so. (more…)
Critical thinking is an educational domain concerned with good reasoning. In the broad sense critical thinking includes both formal and informal logic. The narrow sense of critical thinking (as it is often taught in universities) is primarily concerned with (and often equated with) informal logic. Formal logic primarily involves the study of logical systems, logical axioms, logical consistency, and logical validity; and informal logic primarily involves argument identification, argument interpretation, unstated premise identification, and informal fallacies. (See “What is Logic?” for more information.) Critical thinking is generally not thought to be merely about memorizing logical facts. Instead, it is also thought to involve the development of critical thinking skills, the critical thinking attitude, and critical thinking virtues. The purpose of this paper is to briefly discuss critical thinking skills, the critical thinking attitude, and critical thinking virtues. (more…)
July 8, 2013
I will discuss what unstated premises are, how to identify them, and how to determine what they are.
What are unstated premises?
Unstated premises are premises that a deductive argument requires, but are not explicitly stated. Deductive arguments are popular and can be rationally persuasive, but people don’t always state all of the premises that their deductive arguments require. These premises can be called “unstated premises,” “missing premises,” or “hidden assumptions.” For example, consider the following argument: (more…)
July 1, 2013
I am now working on more definitions for the Comprehensible Philosophy Dictionary. What follows are several new definitions that will be added to it. Let me know if anything should be improved. (more…)
June 13, 2013
What’s the point of a rational argument? To give someone a good reason to believe something. A sufficiently good argument gives us a good reason to believe something is true. It is better for us to have beliefs that are supported by good arguments in the sense that they are more likely true based on our limited understanding of the world, but it is possible for them to be false. (more…)
May 26, 2013
Science has occasionally appropriated philosophical fields. Physics and psychology were originally discussed by philosophers rather than scientists. Right now ethics is considered to be a philosophical domain, but we could imagine science taking over the field. Will ethics ever be taught in a science class? Will we learn right and wrong from natural science?
People who reject that we could one day have a moral science generally do so due to skepticism, the gap between facts and values, and the is-ought fallacy. I will respond to these concerns and explain why I don’t think any of them are conclusive. (more…)
May 13, 2013
A formal logic class or textbook should teach us ways to know when an argument has a valid argument form, and that can take a significant amount of time to learn. I encourage everyone to learn formal logic one way or another because it is of central significance to rational argumentation, and it is not something we spontaneously understand instinctively or through personal experience. Perhaps the first philosopher to understand formal logic and the importance of validity was Aristotle, and philosophers would have liked to understand it sooner. It was a great achievement because it can be so difficult to figure out on our own. Even so, we can learn a lot about valid argument form very quickly. I will explain why we need to make sure our deductive arguments are valid, give examples of valid argument forms, and explain how we can improve our arguments. (more…)
May 5, 2013
The problem of evil refers to the fact that certain traditional views of theism involve contradictory beliefs. The problem is that God should be willing and able to make sure evil doesn’t exist, but evil exists. Some theists argue that atheists can’t reject the existence of God based on the problem of evil because atheists would then have to assume objective morality exists, but objective morality requires God. I will argue that the theist’s argument is irrelevant in consideration of one argument against one type of traditional theism, but it is somewhat relevant against another. Even so, both arguments are unsound. (more…)
May 2, 2013
April 19, 2013
Many people think philosophers aren’t experts, that we can’t really know anything about philosophical issues, or that everyone’s opinion is equal concerning philosophical issues. Philosophical issues are often narrowly understood to be those concerned with the nature of reasoning, knowledge, morality, or reality; and many people say we can’t know anything about such issues. I will argue that we can know something about philosophical issues, which suggests that there can be expert philosophers, and that not everyone’s philosophical opinion is equal. We do seem to know something about philosophical domains and it is plausible to think we can give meaningful philosophical arguments within these domains. Such a position is actually more consistent with how people think about the world.
I will introduce the plausible view that we can know about facts concerning scientific issues, and describe the common view that many people have that we can’t know about facts concerning philosophical issues. I will argue that rejecting philosophical knowledge is a lot like rejecting scientific knowledge. I will explain why we can’t reject philosophy without being inconsistent, and I will give examples of various plausible philosophical beliefs and reasonable philosophical arguments.
Can we know about scientific facts?
Most of us believe that scientists are experts. They know more about biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology than the rest of us because they conduct experiments and know about a lot of the relevant data. There are scientific arguments that are given for various hypotheses using the data because we can find out that certain hypotheses are supported by the data better than others. But are philosophers also experts? Many people think philosophers aren’t, and very few people seem to take the arguments given by philosophers very seriously. Many people think philosophy is nonsense. That we shouldn’t trust what philosophers have to say.
At one point natural science was called ‘natural philosophy’ and it was considered to be part of the philosophical domain. Now people think science is clearly better than philosophy, which is now restricted to certain major domains of inquiry, such as logic (the study of reasoning), epistemology (the study of knowledge), ethics (the study of morality), and metaphysics (the study of reality).
Consider the following beliefs:
- Scientists are experts. (They know more about their domain of expertise than the rest of us.)
- Everyone’s opinion about science is not equal. (Some scientific beliefs are supported by the evidence better than others.)
- We can know something about scientific issues. (We can know some hypotheses are better than others.)
None of these beliefs are scientific beliefs. Science can’t tell us what science should be like or the difference between science and pseudoscience. It can’t tell us the difference between a justified or an unjustified belief. That’s what philosophy of science is about—the nature of science. All of these beliefs are highly related to the nature of knowledge itself. “What is knowledge? Can we know anything? If so, what?” If scientists know more about science than the rest of us, then we are assuming that we can know what knowledge is, that we can know something about science, and that some people know more about scientific facts than the rest of us.
Can we know about philosophical facts?
Although most people think it’s obvious that scientists can know more about science than the rest of us, many do not think it’s obvious about philosophy. In fact, many people reject philosophy. People endorse scientism when they think science is the only way to know something in particular when it’s not—and many scientistically-minded people think philosophy fails to be science. Therefore, many will claim that there is no philosophical way to know anything. There can be no philosophical experts. We can’t really know about any facts concerning the philosophical domains. Everyone’s opinion is equal concerning philosophical issues.
The point is that many people don’t think anyone can know more about the nature of reasoning, knowledge, morality, or reality than anyone else. Philosophers might be experts concerning philosophical trivia, but no philosophical belief is actually better than another.
People who reject philosophy believe that there are people out there who call themselves “philosophers.” We could say that so-called philoaophers are “doing philosophy.” Such people can learn about the history of philosophical arguments and ideas. However, those who reject philosophy think there is no real philosophical progress. For example, we can’t know anything about the nature of argumentation. We can’t even know that certain beliefs about logic are false. Perhaps then we can’t even know that “it is not the case that all men are mammals” is logically equivalent to saying “some men are not mammals.”
Consider the following beliefs:
- Philosophers aren’t experts. (Philosophers don’t know more than the rest of us concerning philosophical domains.)
- Everyone’s opinion is equal concerning philosophical issues. (No philosophical belief is more justified than another.)
- We can’t know anything about philosophical issues. (We can’t know if one philosophical statement is better than another.)
None of these beliefs are scientific and they aren’t self-evident. They are beliefs that fall within the philosophical domain. Again, the main philosophical domain at interest here concerns the nature of knowledge. The first belief listed is not plausible if it’s possible for some people to know more about philosophical issues than other people. The second and third beliefs about philosophy are self-defeating because they are such strong statements against philosophy, but they are philosophical beliefs.
If we can know philosophers aren’t experts, then how can we know that “we can know philosophers aren’t experts”? Perhaps everyone is an equally good philosopher, but that seems unlikely.
If everyone’s opinion is equal concerning philosophical issues, then the belief “everyone’s opinion is equal concerning philosophical issues” is no more justified than the belief that “some opinions concerning philosophical domains are better than others.” If one person knows something is true and someone else only thinks she knows, then their opinions are not equal. Whether or not everyone’s opinion is equal is a philosophical issue because the nature of knowledge is a philosophical issue.
Finally, if we can’t know any facts concerning philosophical issues, then we can’t know that “we can’t know anything about philosophical issues.” What exactly the limits of knowledge are is a philosophical issue because the nature of knowledge is a philosophical issue.
The real issue here is whether or not we can know anything about the reality of philosophical issues. Many people don’t think we can. Could we prove that we can’t know anything about philosophical issues? That itself would seem impossible because it’s a philosophical issue. If we know nothing about philosophical issues, then we actually do know something about philosophical issues.
More examples of philosophical beliefs and arguments
One reason to think we can know something about philosophical issues is that there are good examples of things we think we know about them already. People who think they know something about a philosophical issue yet deny that anyone knows anything about philosophical issues are being inconsistent.
One reason to think that we can learn more about philosophical issues (and to think there can be philosophy experts) is that there can be reasonable philosophical arguments. One way to give philosophical arguments is by showing how we think we know something already, and that what we think we already know implies that something else must also be true.
Perhaps one reason that so many people distrust philosophy is because they think philosophers are doing something esoteric and far-removed from everyday life (unlike scientists). However, I believe that everyone actually has philosophical beliefs and engages in philosophical reasoning. Their beliefs are often justified, and their reasoning is often reasonable. What philosophers do is not so different, but they keep it up, and philosophers are aware of several arguments for and against various issues.
I will give examples of various things we think we know concerning issues from four major philosophical domains (logic, epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics).
We think we know that a belief can’t be factually true and false at the same time. If I say, “It’s raining” and you are in another place and say, “It’s not raining,” we are not actually contradicting one another because we are merely saying “it’s raining where I am.” However, to say that “there is life on another planet in the universe” and that “there isn’t life on another planet in the universe” would be to give contradictory statements. When two factual statements contradict one another, at least one of the statements must be false.
I think this belief is plausible. If I am right that this belief is plausible, then we can know something about a philosophical issue (that at least one philosophical belief is plausible). However, anyone who thinks we can’t know anything about philosophical issues can’t consistently believe it to be plausible.
A simple argument using this belief as a premise is the following:
- A belief can’t be factually true and false at the same time.
- Some people believe that it’s factually true that there is life on another planet in the universe.
- Other people believe that it’s factually true that there is no life on another planet in the universe.
- If “there is life on another planet in the universe” is true and “there is no life on another planet in the universe” is also true, then a belief would be factually true and false at the same time.
- Therefore, it’s not the case that “there is life on another planet in the universe and that there is no life on another planet in the universe.”
I think this argument is reasonable. However, anyone who rejects philosophy must not find this argument to be reasonable. The only way for this argument to be reasonable is if we can know certain things about philosophy (such as the premise concerning logic mentioned earlier).
However, it’s a bit worse than that for those who reject philosophy entirely. Scientists who reject logic won’t be able to support their hypotheses with good arguments. Scientists are committed to giving logical arguments (good arguments using criteria given by logicians), even though logic itself is a philosophical domain. We don’t observe that two factual beliefs can’t be true at the same time. It is a plausible belief about logic anyway.
Anyone who rejects philosophy will have to also reject logic. They will have to reject the idea that we can know anything about proper ways to reason about things, or that a good argument must be consistent with logic.
We think that we can know something about the future by knowing about the past. For example, you can know that rocks that are dropped two seconds from now (on our planet) will fall to the ground based on the fact that all similar objects that were dropped in the past also fell to the ground.
I find this belief to be plausible. If I am right that it’s plausible, then we can know something about philosophy (because we can know that a philosophical belief is plausible). However, anyone who rejects philosophy will not be able to consistently believe it to be plausible .
An argument using this belief as a premise is the following:
- All cats observed by scientists throughout history were mammals.
- We can know something about the future by knowing about the past.
- If we can know something about the future by knowing about the past and all cats observed by scientists throughout history were mammals, then all cats are probably mammals.
- Therefore, all cats are probably mammals.
This argument could very well be one given by a scientist, but notice that one of the premises is a philosophical one. Sometimes scientists rely on philosophical premises. There is no absolute boundary between science and philosophy.
It is inconsistent for scientists to assume any philosophical belief is justified while simultaneously claiming that we can’t know anything about philosophical facts. The fact that we can know something about the future by knowing about the past has never been proven by a scientist. Assume for a moment that a scientist did prove it. How could she prove it? Perhaps by seeing if future data resembled past data in the past. But how does that prove it? Does the fact that future data resembles past data prove that we can know something about the future from the past? If so, we can know something about the future by knowing about the past. That’s circular reasoning. We can’t use the conclusion of our argument as a premise.
She might as well argue the following:
- We can know something about the future by knowing about the past.
- Therefore, we can know something about the future by knowing about the past.
This is not a good way to argue. It’s no better than just repeating an assertion. People can repeat any assertion, but that doesn’t mean we should agree that it’s true.
We think we know that we shouldn’t cause people intense pain unless we have an overriding reason to do so. For example, it’s wrong to kick a two year old child really hard while having a pleasant conversation with the child because there is no overriding reason to do so.
I find this belief to be plausible. If I am right that it’s plausible, then we can know something about a philosophical issue. However, anyone who doesn’t think we can know anything about philosophical issues will not be able to consistently believe it to be plausible.
An argument using this belief as a premise is the following:
- We shouldn’t cause people intense pain unless we have an overriding reason to do so.
- Torturing people who are caught smoking marijuana would cause them intense pain.
- We don’t have an overriding reason to torture people who are caught smoking marijuana.
- Therefore, we shouldn’t torture people who are caught smoking marijuana.
I find this argument to be well-reasoned. If I am right, then we can know something about a philosophical issue (because we can know that a philosophical argument is well-reasoned). However, anyone who rejects philosophy will not be able to consistently believe it to be well-reasoned.
We think we know that other people have mental activity. I know that I see things, hear things, feel things, and have thoughts because I experience all of that for myself. However, I also know other people also see things, hear things, feel things, and have thoughts.
I find this belief to be plausible. If I am right, then we know something about a philosophical issue (because we would know a certain philosophical belief to be plausible). However, anyone who doesn’t think we can know anything about philosophical issues could not consistently believe it to be plausible.
An argument using this belief as a premise is the following:
- Other people have mental activity.
- If other people have mental activity, then other people who have functioning eyes can see me when I am standing in front of them.
- Therefore, other people who have functioning eyes can see me when I am standing in front of them.
I believe this argument to be well-reasoned. If I am right, then we know something about a philosophical issue (because we would know a certain philosophical argument to be well-reasoned). However, anyone who doesn’t think we can know anything about philosophical issues could not consistently believe it to be well-reasoned.
What is philosophical knowledge like?
Many scientific facts are considered to be proven at some point. We hypothesized that germs existed and we eventually found them under a microscope. Perhaps philosophical facts can’t be proven like that. Philosophical and scientific progress can be somewhat different, but related.
In both cases we think we know certain facts. For example, we think we know that rocks exist. Scientists and philosophers should generally use those plausible factual beliefs as evidence rather than reject them as unproven prejudice. We have to start from somewhere.
In both cases we can accept a hypothesis until we have an overriding reason to reject it. The hypothesis must be consistent with the data and it must not be significantly worse than alternatives.
In both cases we should reject a hypothesis when we believe it to be falsified. At this point the hypothesis seems to contradict the facts we think we know about. We have to decide if the hypothesis is less plausible than the factual beliefs it contradicts. For example, we don’t necessarily reject the laws of physics when they don’t predict the motion of the stars perfectly. Instead, we might think the factual knowledge we have about outer space is incomplete. (We now believe there is dark matter involved.) In that case what we thought we knew about outer space (such as the position of stars) was not taken as seriously as the laws of nature we think we know about. We rejected a certain view of the contents of the universe rather than our current understanding of the laws of nature.
The progress found in both philosophy and science is often of elimination. We think we know that certain beliefs are better supported than others, and sometimes a belief is rejected because it’s not consistent with our understanding of things. The main difference between the progress found in science and philosophy is that there might be a point when science proves something to be true once and for all, which might never happen in philosophy. (This point is up for debate.)
Many people think we can’t know anything about philosophical issues, but such a belief is inconsistent because what we can know itself is a philosophical issue. Moreover, people who claim that we can’t know about philosophical issues are also likely to think they do know about certain philosophical domains—they are likely to think they know certain things about logic, epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics. That is also inconsistent of them.
When we find out our beliefs are inconsistent concerning factual matters, we know one of our beliefs are false. Otherwise we’ve given up on logic entirely and no argument will matter any longer. It would be impossible to have a good reason to believe anything.
When we find out our beliefs are inconsistent, we should try find out which ones are false. In this case I think the belief that “we can’t know anything about philosophical issues” is quite implausible and should be rejected. Some of our philosophical beliefs are much more plausible and should be taken seriously.
March 21, 2013
Some of my key blog posts about propositional logic have been organized a free ebook. This ebook can greatly help people understand the importance of logically valid arguments and better understand logical form.
The focus of this book is propositional logic. I discuss the meaning of “logic,” the importance of logic, logical connectives, truth tables, natural deduction, and rules of inference.
March 6, 2013
Recommended reading: What is Logic?
Why is logic education important? The main question here is what the real point of logic education is. The real point of logic is not to teach people how to be logic professors, or to increase test scores, or to impress potential employers. Philosophers and mathematicians were very interested in understanding logic long before it was taught in universities precisely because of how important it is. Why is logic so important? The answer is that logic helps us better understand good arguments—it helps us differentiate between good and bad reasons to believe something. We should want to have well-justified beliefs. We want to know what we should believe. Understanding good argumentation helps us understand when we should believe something, and understanding logic helps us understand good argumentation. (more…)