Ethical Realism

April 19, 2013

Can We Know Anything About Philosophical Issues?

Filed under: philosophy — JW Gray @ 6:22 am
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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.

Introduction

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:

  1. Scientists are experts. (They know more about their domain of expertise than the rest of us.)
  2. Everyone’s opinion about science is not equal. (Some scientific beliefs are supported by the evidence better than others.)
  3. 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:

  1. Philosophers aren’t experts. (Philosophers don’t know more than the rest of us concerning philosophical domains.)
  2. Everyone’s opinion is equal concerning philosophical issues. (No philosophical belief is more justified than another.)
  3. 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).

Logic

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:

  1. A belief can’t be factually true and false at the same time.
  2. Some people believe that it’s factually true that there is life on another planet in the universe.
  3. Other people believe that it’s factually true that there is no life on another planet in the universe.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Epistemology

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:

  1. All cats observed by scientists throughout history were mammals.
  2. We can know something about the future by knowing about the past.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. We can know something about the future by knowing about the past.
  2. 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.

Ethics

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:

  1. We shouldn’t cause people intense pain unless we have an overriding reason to do so.
  2. Torturing people who are caught smoking marijuana would cause them intense pain.
  3. We don’t have an overriding reason to torture people who are caught smoking marijuana.
  4. 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.

Metaphysics

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:

  1. Other people have mental activity.
  2. If other people have mental activity, then other people who have functioning eyes can see me when I am standing in front of them.
  3. 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.)

Conclusion

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.

(Updated 11/21/13)

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11 Comments »

  1. Hi Mr James W. Gray,

    Thank you very much for a well written and explicated post here!

    SoundEagle can demonstrate in a similar way with the story of three blind persons probing the elephant: one probing the leg insists that the elephant is like a pole; the other probing the tail insists that the elephant is like a string; and the one probing the ear insists that the elephant is like a fan. Only the person who has probed the most or who is sighted can be regarded as the most informed, enlightened and correct about the elephant, which symbolises the reality or truth. And only this person is in the (best) position to judge, discern, decide, choose and understand.

    Comment by SoundEagle — April 19, 2013 @ 8:26 am | Reply

  2. This article was well written and clear and gets at an important issue Gray. I agree that philosophers’ opinions about topics in their area are more dependable or expert than those of laymen, but I still do not believe we can know anything in philosophy with as much certainty as in mathematics or empirical science. There is a difference between philosophy and math/science that has resulted in the popular beliefs you argue against. Logic, of course, is the tool we absolutely have to have to know anything in any of these fields. Without it I’m not sure we could even have any conscious thought processes at all. Even in physics, we couldn’t interpret experiments without logic or be able to realize what result would or would not support what hypothesis. However, we do have logic, and in physics we have experiment to appeal to for support, increasing our level of certainty of truth statements there. I’ve read Hume also and we certainly can’t say that physical observations are laws (even in the past) or that they’ll hold in the future, but we can say that in the past, at least, these hypotheses accurately predicted the behavior we’ve observed in the universe…and no rational person would disagree with that. In math, logic rules entirely and theorems have yielded again and again to that tool, with complete certainty.
    But in philosophy we don’t have experiment to appeal to and nothing has ever yielded to pure logic in this area in the way that it has in math…for some reason.
    I agree that someone who has studied philosophy will have a better capacity to discern what is a logicallly consistent argument, and that their opinions–insofar as they are based on logic–will be more dependable than those of someone who has a very low intelligence (and, hence, less capacity for logical discernment or application). But I do not know of one single idea or theorem that would typically be classified as being in the area of philosophy that has been proved whereas, in math, a million things have been. In physical science also, nothing has been logically proved (although Kant and Whewell did try to logically derive the physical universe, like as to prove that it has to be the way it is), but the results have at least provided overwheliming evidence.
    So I think the belief that “no one’s opinion in philosophical matters is more dependable than another’s” is not entirely valid, but is more valid of philosophy than it is of math or science. Same for the belief that “nothing can be known in philosophy.”

    Good article. If you know of anything that has been proved in a field considered to be philosophy…I wouldn’t believe it to be a genuine proof–based on thousands of years of failed efforts–but I’d like to hear of it!

    Comment by stewartos — April 19, 2013 @ 9:47 pm | Reply

    • We’ve proven lots of things about logic. Mathematics requires certain logical axioms. Logic also requires logical axioms. If you accept the axioms, then it can be proven that modus ponens is a valid argument form. That’s a philosophical issue and it’s been proven.

      If you don’t accept the axioms of logic, then nothing has ever been proven about anything.

      I also don’t agree with many things Hume says. He rejects that we have a reason to believe induction can be reliable. If you really don’t think so, then you have to reject science. Do you really think it is rational to reject science?

      There are different ways to read Hume. Under one reading he is saying “we have no reason to believe x, unless we can give a good argument for x.” A slightly stronger reading is that “we should reject x unless we can give a good argument for x” or “x is unjustified unless we can give a good argument for it.” We need to decide what exactly his “philosophical position” is. I would say the second two readings fail to be a justified, and they are probably self-defeating. If they were true, there would be all sorts of problems. For example, we wouldn’t even be justified to believe in logical axioms.

      Scientists do tell us about laws. That’s part of the job. Hume does argue that we don’t know anything about causation. He doesn’t think causation is something we can observe, so he argues that we have no more reason to expect bread to be nutritious than poisonous. That sounds absurd to me. I know that bread will be food rather than poison somehow. If he can’t figure out how we can know something like that, that’s his problem.

      Comment by JW Gray — April 20, 2013 @ 6:09 am | Reply

  3. […] the blog Ethical Realism, James Gray defends the oft maligned idea that there can be such things as philosophical […]

    Pingback by Philosophers Blog Carnival #151 — May 12, 2013 @ 4:44 am | Reply

  4. “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.”

    It’s worth pointing out that in this post you only consistently attack the second of these three beliefs. The first belief, in particular, remains unscathed. This comes out most clearly in the section on ethics: to say that you are an *expert* on the wrongness of gratuitous torture is crazy. Nearly all non-philosophers have exactly the same access to this truth as you, just as they have exactly the same access to truths like “other people have mental activity”. There is no such thing as expert access to such truths.

    Comment by HermioneRon4evr (@HermioneRon4evr) — May 16, 2013 @ 3:04 pm | Reply

    • That’s like arguing that physicists aren’t experts because everyone knows rocks fall when you drop them. There are certain physical and philosophical facts everyone knows about, but that doesn’t mean there’s isn’t more a person can learn about and thus know more about various topics than people who don’t study the subject as much.

      If philosophers have no expert access, then ask everyone to prove complex arguments are valid who have never taken a logic class. You will find out how difficult it is to do it without the proper expertise.

      Comment by JW Gray — May 16, 2013 @ 6:40 pm | Reply

    • I did address the issue about why philosophers are experts when I said the following:

      Perhaps everyone is an equally good philosopher, but how could that happen?

      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.

      Comment by JW Gray — May 16, 2013 @ 6:42 pm | Reply

  5. WordPress won’t let me reply directly. You can argue that there are complex disciplinary truths that people only know because they have studied philosophy, and abilities they have because they are in the discipline. That’s fine and obviously true. But, I repeat, it is crazy to think that philosophers have special access to ordinary truths about other minds and the wrongness of torture. You have claimed that they do. This claim is false.

    Comment by HermioneRon4evr (@HermioneRon4evr) — May 18, 2013 @ 3:57 pm | Reply

    • I claimed that philosophers had special access to those truths? Where did I do that?

      Do scientists have special access to certain truths that no one else has?

      Comment by JW Gray — May 18, 2013 @ 9:18 pm | Reply

  6. What about the following modified claim: We can’t know the truth concerning meaty philosophical issues.

    The philosophical claims you discussed (that no contradiction can be true, and that we can learn about the future by learning about the past) are philosophical claims in that they don’t admit of empirical demonstration–but they’re also something almost no one would ever be inclined to disagree with. It doesn’t take expertise in philosophy to discover or recognize truths like these. (Actually, it takes expertise in Philosophy to find them wanting! There are, after all, skeptics concerning both of these claims.)

    What about the more meaty issues, like the objective validity of moral principles, or the hard problem of consciousness? Isn’t it more plausible and more interesting to consider the claim that we can’t know the truth about things like these?

    http://hopelessgeneralist.blogspot.com/

    Comment by Kris Rhodes — May 28, 2013 @ 7:28 pm | Reply

    • Kris Rhodes,

      I don’t know if we will ever be able to prove highly controversial issues in philosophy. The progress and expertise involved with these issues has more to do with rejecting false beliefs and hypotheses rather than knowing the true one.

      Comment by JW Gray — May 28, 2013 @ 8:02 pm | Reply


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