Here’s an untidy definition of philosophy – untidy because it accounts for much in the discipline’s traditions without describing everything that happens in contemporary philosophy departments. Philosophy is a reason-based attempt to answer deep, persistent questions that cause human beings puzzlement and anxiety.
Which questions? There’s no definitive, timeless list. In classical antiquity, the questions addressed by philosophers included some for which we now have good scientific answers. Among them were questions about phenomena seen in the sky – is the sun a god or a glowing rock, or something else? Others related more generally to the structure, composition, and origin of the universe. Since the seventeenth century, scientists have been working on all that rather successfully. These no longer seem like “philosophical” rather than “scientific” questions.
Philosophy still has a role in reflecting upon science itself. What is science? How does it work? Why has it been so successful for the past four centuries? How does it relate to other intellectual disciplines that genuinely produce knowledge? What is the difference between science and pseudoscience? By and large, however, the investigations carried out in science faculties and scientific research institutes are not considered part of philosophy.
Some obvious questions remain, in the popular and academic imaginations, “philosophical”. Is there a god or an afterlife? Do we possess free will? What is the relationship between conscious experience and the physical world? Are moral rules really binding on us? If so, in what sense? What is a good life for a human being? What are the specifications for a just society? A coherent and detailed set of answers to these questions would amount to a comprehensive worldview and guide to life. For better or worse, however, philosophy does not provide official or semi-official answers. Particular philosophers or schools of philosophy offer answers, but philosophy as an academic discipline does not.
The world’s religions offer answers, of course, but religious traditions disagree among themselves and we have many other reasons to doubt religious methods of identifying truth. It seems worthwhile, then, examining how far evidence and human reason can take us. But a puzzle – possibly a scandal – for modern academic philosophy is the seeming inability of philosophers to reach agreement on answers to big, persistent questions that worry ordinary people. We can’t even agree on the right methodology. Thus, philosophical disagreement is fundamental and pervasive. We might wonder why that is, and whether it renders philosophy unworthy of study.
Many philosophers have addressed this metaphilosophical conundrum, but without much agreement. One approach is to suggest that the big philosophical questions – about theism, free will, consciousness, the authority of morality, the good life, the just society, and so on – are not merely difficult. Rather, they are permanently and inherently intractable. Something about them, though it’s not clear what, places what solutions there might be beyond us. If this is so, it need not mean that investigating the big questions is inevitably fruitless. We might be able to develop increasingly sophisticated and coherent answers to some, or all, of them – and perhaps there’s value in that. It’s just that we would never be able to select decisively between, say, the best realist account of morality and the best error theoretic account, or between the best theistic interpretation of the world and the best atheistic interpretation. We could make progress in developing more sophisticated and coherent accounts, but not in settling on one of them over its comparably sophisticated and coherent rivals.
This does seem like a kind of progress, albeit a disappointing one. I wonder, though, whether it’s a plausible account of the philosophical enterprise. It might be the picture that we entertain as a useful fiction when marking student essays. It looks, however – doesn’t it? – as if philosophers usually make quite different assumptions. They assume that at least some big philosophical questions (the ones they are writing about, for instance) have discoverable answers. I doubt that many philosophers see themselves as merely developing the most sophisticated and coherent version of one or another view on, say, the existence of gods or the authority of morality. They act and speak as if they’re investigating these questions with the goal of discovering truth.
Are they fooling themselves? I can’t prove the point in a brief essay, but it seems to me likely that at least some of the big philosophical questions are not inherently intractable, even if answering them has been wickedly difficult. If I’m right, a time might come when we have institutionally approved answers to some of these questions. If we take that idea seriously, however, it prompts some questions of its own. Assuming some of philosophy’s big questions are answerable, why haven’t we succeeded in answering them? What more would it take to answer them more-or-less definitively? If we did answer them, would it necessarily be a good thing for society as a whole and for philosophy itself? Alternatively, is the long-running deferral of answers an unequivocally bad thing?
One obstacle to finding agreed answers to philosophy’s big questions might be that some of the correct answers are too disconcerting to accept lightly. That is, they are disconcerting to many people within the wider public and also to many philosophers. Bluntly, what if there are no gods, we don’t have free will, and morality is, in a relevant sense, not binding on us? Even if these answers are correct, we can expect many people to be troubled by them. We can expect them to meet some fierce, even desperate, resistance. At the same time, let’s keep in mind that even the most robustly evidenced findings from the physical and biological sciences can be rejected by someone who is sufficiently motivated and prepared to bite enough bullets. Resistance to disconcerting, yet correct, philosophical answers could continue indefinitely.
I suspect that this is part of what’s going on within current academic philosophy. For example, I sense desperation whenever I read event-causal or agent-causal theories of libertarian free will. These defences are often ingenious, but they seem motivated by a wish that the world were like that – and hence by a desire to imagine how it might yet be like that – rather than by anything we observe that suggests that our world actually does contain beings with libertarian free will. If so, this debate can go on with no natural stopping point, even though the attempts to show that libertarian free will might exist invariably end up sounding mysterious and implausible.
But perhaps there’s more to the story of philosophy’s remarkable delay in answering its big questions. One aspect might be the difficulty involved in answering relevant empirical questions. Consider the ancient question of what is a good life for a human being. This question is not straightforwardly or entirely empirical, if only because it raises tricky conceptual issues about the idea of goodness in general. Even if we sorted out those issues, however, a difficult empirical issue would remain.
Any account of the good life for human beings must lean on a theory of human nature. Producing an adequate theory of human nature does not seem impossible in principle. It seems like an empirically tractable issue for psychologists and anthropologists (and doubtless others with something to contribute, such as historians). Unfortunately, psychologists and anthropologists run into difficulties of their own if they offer unpalatable answers. For example, a pessimistic, Hobbesian theory of human nature might be resisted indefinitely by rival psychologists and anthropologists even it were correct. That said, the main obstacle to obtaining an adequate and agreed theory of human nature does not seem to be resistance to unpalatable theories – even if that is happening – so much as the sheer complexity of the intellectual enterprise.
I sometimes wonder what resources philosophers would need for a truly determined effort to settle the question of what is a good life for a human being. What would a Manhattan Project, or similar, look like if devoted to that issue? Perhaps it would include large numbers of experts from across the sciences and humanities, all single-mindedly addressing the problem’s empirical aspects.
On one conception of philosophy – a popular one within the academy – philosophers are not supposed to get their hands dirty carrying out their own empirical research. According to this view, all our legitimate work is conceptual and can be done from our armchairs. At one level, this strikes me as nonsense. Answering philosophical questions typically requires empirical input. In principle, then, people devoted to answering philosophical questions ought to conduct whatever empirical investigations are needed or helpful. There is nothing about the nature of philosophy that forbids us from leaving our armchairs and dirtying our hands.
At another level, there’s a practical problem: we need information from a range of increasingly fragmented and specialised fields, and no philosopher is an infinitely polymathic Doctor Hercules or Professor Hippolyta. No one person could possibly have the knowledge base and methodological expertise to conduct original research in more than the tiniest fraction of the relevant fields of inquiry. It’s difficult enough keeping up with philosophy’s own increasing fragmentation. Although there’s no deep reason why we mustn’t, as philosophers, employ whatever expertise we happen to possess, in practice we’ll seldom be able to do much, if any, empirical investigation of our own. Then again, we can, in principle, team up with people who can lend the needed skills. A philosophical Manhattan Project, if a sympathetic billionaire decided to fund it, might thus include philosophers working with experts from many other disciplines – ranging from physics to psychology to archaeology and biblical scholarship. Good luck establishing this, but we can always dream.
As a final thought for discussion, might there be a downside to answering philosophy’s biggest remaining questions? Putting the thought another way, is there an upside to academic philosophy’s tardiness in obtaining agreed answers? It seems to me that some of the big questions do have answers, and that some answers are already supported by intellectually decisive arguments. But even if that’s so, might it be best if the debates continue?
Here, I’m not just thinking of the fact that our slow-grinding mills keep philosophy departments (and philosophers) in business. I invite readers to imagine near-future scenarios in which philosophy departments declare more-or-less official answers to their big questions, much as evolution is paradigmatic in the field of biology. The answers to big philosophical questions are essential to people’s worldviews and plans of life, and perhaps to their sense of identity. For that reason, the prospect of an academic orthodoxy is as much unsettling as exciting.
Imagine how we’d feel if governments declared official answers to big philosophical questions, and pronounced the alternatives to be heretical. Philosophy departments are not, of course, armed like governments with fire and sword. We tend, also, to assume that governments are incompetent regulators of which worldviews and philosophical guides to life ought to be considered orthodox. Philosophy departments might have a better claim to competence, though that’s surely open to dispute. In any event, philosophers deal with issues of great sensitivity. If we’ve been taught properly, we’re intellectually equipped for the task. Perhaps, however, even intellectually competent judges of worldviews and guides to life should not assume too much institutional authority or be too quick to declare an intellectual orthodoxy. Perhaps more than other disciplines, philosophy needs to keep options open.
But I’m not at all sure about this. It might make no difference if we started declaring orthodoxies – we’d be ignored by the Folk, who’d prefer, thank you kindly, their own unruly answers.