Pictured above: a philosopher leads potential scientists astray
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.
- This is why he believes that psychology just is morality, because the former is a science while moral philosophy is not.
- 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.
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.