A Few Stupid Questions

Pictured above: a philosopher leads potential scientists astray

It is no secret that I found reading Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method to be an exceptional learning experience.

There is one quote I find myself going back to, again and again:

Among the greatest insights that Plato’s account of Socrates affords us is that, contrary to the general opinion, it is more difficult to ask questions than to answer them. When the partners in the Socratic dialogue are unable to answer Socrates’ awkward questions and try to turn the tables by assuming what they suppose is the preferable role of the questioner, they come to grief. Behind this comic motif in the Platonic dialogues there is the critical distinction between authentic and inauthentic dialogue. To someone who engages in dialogue only to prove himself right and not to gain insight, asking questions will indeed seem easier than answering them. There is no risk that he will be unable to answer a question. In fact, however, the continual failure of the interlocutor shows that people who think they know better cannot even ask the right questions. In order to be able to ask, one must want to know, and that means knowing that one does not know.

I fear that fellow Sweet Talker Ryan and Lubos Motl, whom Ryan thinks of so highly, are right about people like me. Socrates, Plato, and Gadamer would no doubt concur—I am only capable of asking stupid questions.

Ryan’s two part argument, and the pieces he links to, are hefty and add up to quite the system of thought. I feel I am inadequate to the task of offering a proper answer, especially since I would not use the scientific method to do so, so what answer I would provide would have no value in any case.

Perhaps there can be some value in even stupid questions, if only to reveal how wrong this path I have taken has been from the very start. So, in the spirit of conversation rather than the spirit of a rigorous scientific examination, I offer a few questions to my friend Ryan, and hope he may help me find better ones.

Before asking any questions, I’ve got to start somewhere. My understanding of Ryan’s position is that it is:

  • Scientism: the idea that science is the only valid form of inquiry.
  • Pragmatism: the idea that getting results is what matters, and the theory behind it does not (unless getting the theory wrong is specifically what gets in the way of getting results).

Hopefully he will tell me if I’ve unfairly oversimplified or simply missed the mark.

The first question I have is what Ryan supposes that he and Motl and his other sources are doing? When advancing arguments about the nature of science, philosophy, or morality, I mean. Is that science? If not, and it isn’t philosophy (as it must not be, for they have demonstrated that philosophy is bogus), then what other thing is it? Has anyone ever engaged in this other thing, in the history of the world before the Scientific Revolution?

Well, that was more than one question, I suppose. I am so stupid that sometimes I cannot even count.

Next, I wonder what do Ryan and Motl believe the scientific method is?

Did they use it in their posts? I must not have been paying very close attention, and missed it, if so.

Several questions jumped out at me while reading this Motl post on stupid questions. Perhaps I should just make a list.

  • If science is the only valid way of framing questions or answering them, and the problems with framing questions are largely language problems (as his list seems to imply) like defining things—why doesn’t Motl rely on the science of linguistics for his analysis?
  • Is there some other science, that isn’t linguistics, that Motl relied upon for drawing up his list?
  • When writing off thousands of years of philosophy and theology, did Motl merely have trouble finding specific examples to quote, or is it unscientific to examine the objects of one’s critique?
  • Is everyone who disagrees with Motl both stupid and dishonest?

When I read statements like this:

Do we have a “free will”? I don’t know what the question means.

I wonder why he doesn’t consult a reader, or the SEP entry at least. If one wanted to waste yet more time on trivialities, you could even read some of the history of the thing, such as the debate between Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther. But I know that the only thing more worthless than a philosopher is a theologian, so I must have taken leave of my senses to even suggest seeking out such context.

Concluding Questions

I know it’s easy to simply ask a dizzying array of questions, so I’ll try to make this easier. If nothing else, I’d like it if Ryan could address the following:

  • How do we determine what counts as “getting results”?
  • What is it about psychology that makes its conclusions more trustworthy than moral philosophy?
  • What is the difference between the reasoning done to arrive at the scientism-pragmatism position, and the reasoning that is being rejected as unscientific?

On the last question, I think Tuomas Tahko has a pretty good framework. I do not know enough about physics to evaluate his claims about it, so perhaps Ryan is in a better position to do so. If he likes what he finds there, he might be interested in Tahko’s (300 page) defense of the necessity of metaphysics.

But I said I’d stick to stupid questions, and here I’ve concluded with a stupid suggestion. Hopefully the march of scientific history will wash away this entire episode.

6 thoughts on “A Few Stupid Questions

  1. The quickest way to begin is to clarify two things:

    (1) While Motl probably is a “scientism-ist,” I am not, so that criticism doesn’t apply to what I’m getting at.

    (2) My position isn’t pragmatism so much as it is meta-pragmatism… or maybe it’s better to see it as super-pragmatism.

    So, go back to the old man outside the coffee shop – the “result” is giving him change. My claim is that it’s no better to do so for utilitarian reasons than for deontological or eudaimonist reasons. This seems straightforward enough to me, but maybe I am wrong. If so, your response should be an explanation of why eudaimonist altruism is of a higher value than any other reasoning that results in exactly the same act of altruism. There is no need to bring “scientism” or “pragmatism” into it at all. (That’s what Episode One was about.) My only point in citing Motl was that he does a great job of explaining, in his idiosyncratic way, the follies of getting hung up on philosophical taxonomy when the question is simple.

    And, once again, the question is whether the same act arrived at through different philosophies has a different moral value depending on those philosophies.

    Psychology’s value here is not the fact that it is scientific, but rather that it keeps our attention on the *act*, not the philosophy. And this seems to be a good way forward unless you can provide some description for why two philosophies that conclude with the same human act carry different weight. Can you provide this?

    1. Thanks—that’s very clarifying.

      I still don’t see how psychology keeps our attention on the act, though. In order arrive at good mental health you need at least an operational definition of what it is, and the capability to diagnose mental illness. This all seems very importantly theoretical to me, though of course it is about getting results.

      To answer your final question, let me put it this way: do you think it matters whether someone gets better while on a placebo or whether it was actually caused (to some degree) by medication? Do you agree that knowing that there is a placebo effect, and that the form of the placebo doesn’t matter much, doesn’t invalidate the need for true medicine?

      1. Think about how we compare drugs to placebos: We choose specific bio-markers and then run a head-to-head test. If the drug pushes the bio-marker 3+ standard deviations in the right direction, the drug is deemed effective. If not, the drug fails its test. What matters are the results. I’m giving us a “bio-marker” for philosophy.

        Now, you’re right that I haven’t fully defined it, but it doesn’t require a definition. Remember, I don’t have to be sick in order to get healthier. Doing a few sets of push-ups every morning is a great idea, even if you’re not already a diabetic like me. Mental health works the same way. You seem to be coming at this in a defensive way: “If Ryan and I disagree on morality, then he’s saying I’m mentally ill!” No. I’m saying that actions that produce more positive mental health outcomes are moral – just as actions that raise your VO2 max are physically healthy. It’s not about illness, it’s about health, and the healthier you are (mentally), the more moral your behavior is. I’m saying that’s more than just a coincidence, that there’s a causal relationship there. In fact, this might be the only “bio-marker” that matters for philosophy.

        As I said in my post, I don’t need to define what happiness or mental health is because we both already know what they feel like when we feel them. Do doctors “define” pain? Of course not. They give patients a smiley face chart and ask them to point. So, there’s no philosophy involved here, there is only the final analysis. Point to the smiley the corresponds to your moral outcome. Did this make me and/or others happier, saner, and healthier? If yes then it was moral. No need to get caught up on a theory of definitions of happiness when the data is self-evident.

      2. I look forward to your longer defense. But my first thought is that John Nash *felt* as though he was mentally healthy, until he realized some people in his life were actually figments of his imagination. And he’s a rare case who figured it out.

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