Theory and Practice, Episode Two

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“No Epistemic Value”

The social value of philosophy was hiding in its role of a subject that used to attract – and, to a lesser extent, still attracts – high-IQ people and makes them think about important questions. Historically, philosophy was therefore the ultimate “protoscience” and became the seed of science as we know it today, too. And that was good for the mankind.

However, its modus operandi is a flawed approach to learning the truth. The old philosophy was studied before the scientific method was understood; and the modern philosophers – by the very definition of philosophers – are still failing to use the scientific method. They don’t understand that Nature is smarter than us which is why they still hope to “guess the important truths” without any accurate empirical input; and, more importantly, they fail to formulate their musings sharply enough and eliminate the falsified ones.

Therefore, we may say that philosophy as a human enterprise has a “social value” but philosophy as a body of knowledge, methods, and results has no “epistemic value”.

That is from a 2013 blog post written by a physicist named Lubos Motl. Even now, years later, this post continues to leave a lasting impact on me. Always outspoken, Motl doesn’t mince words in this post, either:

In general, there aren’t any big questions posed by philosophers that were solved within science simply because philosophy’s modus operandi is not only a flawed method to find the right answer; it is a flawed method to choose the right questions, too. For this reason, virtually all important enough questions first posed by philosophers were scientifically shown to be meaningless or building on invalid assumptions (and all “specific enough” theories invented by philosophers – whether they have called them “questions” or, which was more typical, “teaching” – were shown scientifically false). The philosophy’s unscientific method not only fails to eliminate the blunders and misconceptions from the answers; it fails to eliminate them from the questions, too.

It’s tempting to summarily dismiss anyone who themselves writes so dismissively about important ideas, but I ask the reader to resist that temptation. Motl doesn’t hate philosophy, he just doesn’t see the point of investing time and intellect into poorly specified questions. (He even wrote a separate post about stupid questions.)

No, his real point isn’t that philosophy is useless, but rather that it has failed to get results:

The main problem with the philosophical method is not that it produces no results for other fields; the main problem is that it doesn’t produce the true answers in its own field.

Ask yourself what philosophy has done for you, personally. What are its benefits? And by “benefits” I mean “positive impacts on your life over and above the mere ability to use philosophy’s internal jargon to describe things that can just as easily and accurately be described without that jargon?”

I won’t say that philosophy can’t produce those benefits. What I will say is that one’s lack of clear benefits indicates that one has the wrong philosophy. If you don’t have them or can’t list them out- or, even worse, if your life is observably worse as a result of philosophy – then you need to change course. And this is true according to your standards, not just mine.

Spinning Wheels

It’s a bad idea to promote the ideas of Ayn Rand, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and Dr. Phil on this blog… much less in the same blog post… much less in the same sentence… but consider this the exception that proves the rule. The one idea they all seem to have in common is that they all seem to be dedicated to the notion that philosophy, done right, ought to be of practical use to ordinary people. Yudkowsky calls it “making beliefs pay rent,” but I prefer Dr. Phil’s folksy way of saying it: “How’s that workin’ for ya?

Philosophy is only as good as its ability to make us happy and help us solve problems. At its worst, philosophy is infuriating nonsense that misses the point, causing endless debates about whether an X is a “true” X. Fun though it may be in the moment, it’s practically useless. We don’t need a correct definition of “happiness” in order to be happy – we already know what happiness feels like, because we’ve all felt it. The rest is navel-gazing. I like to brood with a snifter of cognac as much as the next guy (okay, more than the next guy), but on my best days I remember that cognac is nice to drink even when I’m not brooding. That’s when the real fun begins. Or should I say the true fun?

I’m arming myself with a bandwagon of sundry other thinkers out there to lend a little extra credence to my claim that moral foundations ought to be psychological, i.e. not philosophical. As I put it in a separate conversation recently, “What good is a philosophy that puts you in therapy?” We debate the philosophy or the moral framework, but nobody debates the results; we all want to be sane, happy, healthy people. Touting this as the central goal of any moral or philosophical system puts the focus where it belongs: the proof of the pudding.

This is why, when we raise philosophical objections to someone’s stated belief, we don’t very often convince them to change her mind. What difference does it make if “capitalism, carried to its natural conclusion” produces anarchy? No debate about economic systems should rest on taking the real, physical world in which we live, and moving it to a hypothetical “natural [philosophical] conclusion.” I’m for economic growth and widespread prosperity. You too? Okay, what policy can be shown to produce those results? If my idea makes us all rich but philosophically inconsistent, I promise to buy you a hamburger. (NB: a hamburger is more satiating than philosophical consistency.)

The problem, as I see it, is that the deeper one gets into philosophy, the further one gets from the solution to one’s problem. I firmly believe that Plato’s Republic could be convincingly re-translated as comedy. One simple question about the definition of the word justice produces an entire treatise on government. You couldn’t make up better satire if you tried. If someone who knew nothing about philosophy (…or a thousand monkeys sitting at a thousand typewriters…) were asked to write a pilot for a sit-com the express purpose of which was to make fun of philosophers, it would look a lot like the Republic.

Suppose that in real life you actually had to solve a trolley problem, and that you could choose to either go with your gut instinct or pause time long enough to perform an exhaustive philosophical analysis of the problem. My thesis, restated: (1) If your analysis produced exactly the same conclusion as your gut instinct, then it was a wasted effort; (2) If your analysis made you less certain of what to do, it made your life worse and it was a wasted effort; (3) If your analysis produced a perverse conclusion, it made your life worse; (4) But, if your analysis produced a better outcome than your gut instinct would have, it was worthwhile.

Getting Results

I suppose at this point I should establish that I’m not straw-manning anything. Does philosophy actually produce bad outcomes for people? Yes. Here are two examples.

The first one is the curious case of Mitchell Heisman, who no one remembers anymore. By most accounts, Heisman was a highly intelligent and motivated man who showed no warning signs, and who ultimately harmed no one but himself. Despite his admirable intellect, he shot himself on a Harvard University landmark… as an act of philosophy. He left a “suicide note” in the form of a 1,900 page treatise on nihilism posted to a now-defunct website. The few who profess to have read it said it was “creepy,” but no one says that its claims are untrue. (Not to damn with faint praise, but Lubos Motl read it and enjoyed it.) Heisman was an intelligent man whose core philosophical beliefs were nihilistic. Unlike most nihilists, Heisman actually put his beliefs into practice: if there is no point, then why live? It’s important to note that Heisman didn’t misunderstand nihilism or get it wrong. He understood it perfectly, and ended his life accordingly.

In learning about Heisman, we all sense that something is wrong, but academic philosophy is powerless to tell us what. At best we can disagree with his conclusions, but when it comes to getting results, i.e. suicide prevention, what good is that? We know that suicide is a tragedy; we don’t need to prove it. The suggestion is almost silly. But philosophy can’t do the work needed to save Heisman’s life or anyone else’s. Instead, it can spur a debate about whether Heisman’s suicide is “truly” a tragedy or whether he is “truly” worse-off now compared to when he was alive.

The result of philosophy for Mitchell Heisman, then, is death. That’s a bad outcome.

The second example is that of Katherine Ripley, a young journalist who found herself traumatically victimized, left in a sad situation in which the academic philosophies she had learned in school gave her exactly the wrong advice. What those philosophies did give her, on the other hand, was a powerful set of rationalizations for self-destructive behavior that she only learned to overcome after what she describes as “intensive therapy sessions.”

Ms. Ripley isn’t a crazy person or an idiot. In fact, her career would suggest very much the opposite. She is an intelligent and articulate defender of her ideas. The philosophies that did her wrong for her own life (the real world, live and in the flesh) are defended on the highest terms and in the halls of the most prestigious philosophy departments in the country. The question isn’t “who could believe such a thing?” because the answer to that is “pretty much anyone smart enough to follow a valid chain of logic.” No, the question is what results did she get out of those ideas? The proof of the pudding.

I have no good arguments against either nihilism or feminism. They are both valid, consistent moral belief systems. They’re both well-reasoned and provide cogent explanations for a person’s actions. But how’s that workin’ for ya?

There is a fair criticism to be made at this point: Some great argument, Ryan. You take two tragedies that happen to have a connection to a couple of mainstream philosophies, and from that you indict the philosophies themselves, rather than the people. What about all the millions of other practitioners of these philosophies who don’t suffer an ill fate?

My response: Those philosophies appear to be working for all the happy people, don’t they? See? Multiple coherent, consistent, valid philosophies are available to us and anyone else. You might choose one and I might choose another. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is how the pudding tastes.

Practice, Not Theory

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one reason to give an old man some spare changeCeteris paribus, the philosophy that consistently results in a skinned cat (uh, assuming you’re into that…) or a donation to the needy is a good philosophy. It shouldn’t matter if that philosophy happens to be nihilism or feminism or utilitarianism or the Word of God. (Ceteris paribus.)

By contrast, the philosophy that only seems to work in special cases is not a good philosophy. Nor the philosophy that works 95% of the time, and 5% of the time you blow your brains out in front of the library; nor the philosophy that makes millions of women feel empowered at the expense of thousands of women who end up really hurting on the inside; nor the philosophy that teaches peace and harmony on Sundays and insular biases and discrimination the rest of the week; nor the philosophy that justifies a particular economic policy at the expense of all human altruism. And so on, and so forth.

The results matter. The theories are only as valuable as their ability to deliver those results. Did you like your pudding? Good, then you got the recipe right. Or not? Then change your recipe. It’s just words on paper. You can’t eat words on paper unless you’re desperate, and even then you’re getting mostly fiber. In one end and out the other.

And just in case I haven’t fully tapped-out the recipe analogy, here are some old-timey instructions for ammonia cookies, which are exactly what they sound like.

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Why would someone want to put ammonia in their cookies? Because it tastes like mint. No, really, I’ve eaten them before. They are delicious. You can scratch your head about putting ammonia in food, but the fact is, it’s been done – successfully. That philosophy has been tested to tasty effect, so at this point there is no use questioning the thinking behind eating ammonia. It got results. (It’s not as if the drinking of cow milk is any more rational – or, for you vegans out there, the consumption of the barely-edible plant stalks attached to fatally poisonous leaves.) It doesn’t have to make sense if the cookies are both tasty and edible, and they are.

The underlying philosophy – the why – doesn’t matter anymore.

But you want “why”, you’re drawn to “why” like you’re drawn to a pretty girl in the rain.  Let me guess: she has black hair, big eyes, and is dressed like an ingenue.   “Why?” is the most seductive of questions because it is innocent, childlike, infinite in possibilities, and utterly devoted to you.

“Why am I this way?  Why do I do what I do?”  But what will you do with that information?  What good is it?  If you were an android, would it change you to know why you were programmed the way you were?   “Why” is masturbation, “why” is the enemy, the only question that matters is, now what?

And anyway, the answer to “why” isn’t very interesting. (Spoiler alert: “It is inevitable.”)

We don’t really want a perfect philosophical theory, anyway. That’s just an intermediary step to more interesting goals, like “happiness” and “sanity,” just like you don’t write C# code in order for it to be syntactically correct, but rather as a step toward a more interesting goal, like buying food at the grocery store and subsequently eating it. A job that pays well and keeps you dipping your ammonia cookies in milk instead of anti-freeze is a good job; a philosophy that keeps you happy, well-adjusted, and sane is a good philosophy.

It’s the proof of the pudding, see, that’s what we want. Results.

8 thoughts on “Theory and Practice, Episode Two

  1. The scientific method is only one of the intellectual tools available to us. Alone, it is not enough, although it can be highly effective, as science has amply demonstrated. Still, you might want to consider that all of human culture — including science itself (the discipline, not its subject matter) — is ‘outside’ (couldn’t find a better word) the space-time universe that science describes so well. In that universe, mathematics, sculpture and Sherlock Holmes have no non-trivial existence. Given the importance (to humans) of human culture, I think it is reasonable to conclude that science on its own is insufficient for our needs.

    1. No arguments here, unless you are getting bad results.

      To wit, you might be using the word “importance” in one of two ways. The first way is to mean “makes us sane and happy.” The second way is “occupies our thoughts.” What I’m getting at in this blog post is that only the first meaning of the word “importance” is worth anything.

  2. Jeffrey S.

    Hmmm…this seems like one long brief for consequentialism.

    Consequentialism (or utilitarianism) has its appeal, but also seems intellectually flawed in many ways. If you were a German citizen in 1937, Nazi philosophy might seem like a great idea and would probably make you “sane and happy.” Of course, that same philosophy wasn’t so great for a Jew in 1937 Germany — but why care about one person over another in your scheme of things?

    And this doesn’t even begin to tackle the hard cases — a woman who aborts her growing baby might think abortion makes her “sane and happy” but it certainly doesn’t help the baby!!!

    1. I wrote another comment, but it didn’t really address your point correctly.

      First: No, this isn’t a defense of utilitarianism. I’ve written many critiques of consequentialism.

      Second: For me, being “sane and happy” involves more than merely claiming to be sane and happy. The whole point is that results – not claims or philosophical consistencies – should be the final arbiter. I could respond more specifically to your example, but I’ll defer that to a later post.

      1. Jeffrey S.

        O.K., but how do we evaluate “results”? By what metric? Again, imagine the average German citizen in 1937 or 1938 — by just about any metric you want to look at he/she was doing better than they would have been doing in 1930 or 1931 — so Nazism seemed to work! It was only after WWII when everything went to sh*t and then adopting liberal democracy as a “philosophy” seemed to work better (although another interesting question is — what time frame are we using to evaluate claims? What works for some people over time frame X might in the long run — let’s say time frame Y, be bad for the society — again, what are your metrics for “sane and happy”??)

        I know this is all hard to hash out in a blog post — which is why I’m skeptical you’ve discovered some secret sauce that is the key to unlocking (to mix metaphors) all of philosophy.

        Interesting food for thought though.

      2. I don’t claim to have discovered a secret sauce. In some cases, the evaluation is straight-forward. My previous post mentioned the donation of spare change to a deserving stranger – either the money gets donated or it doesn’t, that’s the result.

        In more elaborate cases, the rule of thumb I originally offered was: “Actions that serve to augment or support the mental health of moral agents are moral, actions that serve to diminish their mental health are immoral, and actions that have no impact on mental health are morally neutral.

        So, by implication, if you find that your actions generally serve to make you and everyone else around you happier, saner, and healthier, I’d say you’re getting good results. If not, there is room for improvement.

        Because I’m suggesting we let our psychology be the metric, it will necessarily be an individualist and case-by-case thing. But that’s a feature, not a bug. Rather than getting bogged-down by the imprecise language of philosophy and its ambiguous conclusions, we can just ask if our beliefs are paying rent by making us and others happy.

        That’s the gist of it, anyway.

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