Long hair, beard, black leather jacket, lively t-shirt and faded jeans – there was always something reassuringly subversive about David Chalmers’ unorthodox presence. At conferences, where he’s probably the keynote, he always stood out like a member of a rock band who took a wrong turn, sometimes to the visible distress of his tweed-wearing peers. So when our Skype connection is up and running and I see a clean-shaven Chalmers, sporting a short back and sides, I don’t quiz him on his claims about the hard problem of consciousness, his surprising arguments for a kind of dualism, the extended mind thesis he developed with Andy Clark, his thoughts about artificial intelligence or his more recent views on the intelligibility of the universe. I want to know what gives with the haircut. Has Chalmers sold out or what?
He laughs, “I’ve had long hair for more than half my life, so I thought it was time for a change. I’d been talking about doing it for years, but I was writing a book at the time, and I got worried that I would lose my philosophical powers. So I thought I’d better wait until the book was finished. Then I cut the hair.”
His philosophical powers remain undiminished, and he’s now bringing them to bear on a touchy subject. Ask a physicist or chemist or biologist to explain the basic truths discovered and accepted in their disciplines, and you’ll be directed to a whole section of the library. Ask a philosopher for a list of philosophical truths discovered, progress made, even generally agreed upon propositions, and you might well get a blank stare. We’ve been working on being, truth, beauty and goodness for the better part of two and a half thousand years. You’d think we’d have piled up some truths by now. But compared to the progress made by the young upstarts in the hard and soft sciences, philosophy has a meta-problem in need of an explanation. Why isn’t there more progress in philosophy?
Chalmers tightens up these sorts of loose thoughts with a single thesis: “there has not been large collective convergence to the truth on the big questions of philosophy”. What does he mean by “the big questions”, and anyway why think there’s not been convergence on true answers? Didn’t Thales think that all things were full of gods? We’ve made some strides, haven’t we?
“It’s a pretty common observation that there’s a lot of disagreement in philosophy,” he says. “We formalised this to some extent, when David Bourget and I took a survey of professional philosophers. We asked them about thirty major questions in philosophy, and kind of unsurprisingly we found pretty serious disagreement on all of them.”
The survey he mentions was sent to professional philosophers in ninety-nine philosophy departments in North America, Europe and Australasia, and about half of the 2,000 recipients responded. They were asked whether they accept or lean towards one philosophical position or whether they were drawn in other directions – maybe they’re unfamiliar with the topic or accept a view not listed. Here’s a taste of the results:
Aesthetic value: objective 41%, subjective 35%, other 24%
Free will: compatibilism 59%, libertarianism 14%, no free will 12%, other 15%
Knowledge: empiricism 35%, rationalism 28%, other 37%
Normative ethics: deontology 26%, consequentialism 24%, virtue ethics 18%, other 32%
Truth: correspondence 51%, deflationary 25%, epistemic 7%, other 17%
Only one view, realism about the external world, got more than 80% support. (Turn that stat on its head, and you get the worrying proposition that 20% those paid to think about such things aren’t too sure about having hands.) A priori knowledge, atheism and scientific realism attracted more than 70% support. A few more views managed to clear 60% acceptance, but on the other twenty-three questions, philosophers could muster less than 60% support for a particular view. Not much in the way of large convergence then.
“Philosophers disagree about their big issues much more than mathematicians, than physicists, than other scientists do,” Chalmers says, gesturing with a glass of water a little too near his keyboard. “If you asked physicists a hundred years ago what are the big questions, I predict that right now there’d be quite a lot of agreement on the big questions of physics from 100 years ago. There would be convergence over time. In mathematics David Hilbert proposed twenty-three big questions in 1900, and now just over a century later more than half of them are solved, and half of the rest are well on their way.
“If on the other hand you look at Bertrand Russell’s Problems of Philosophy, published in 1912, and ask, what’s the status of those problems now, they’re mostly wide open. There hasn’t been a whole lot of convergence towards agreement on the big questions of philosophy.”
A standard move made by philosophy’s apologists in response to questions about progress goes like this: whenever philosophy starts solving problems, that branch of philosophy hives off and becomes a new discipline in its own right. Natural philosophers with an interest in physics became physicists, and the same sort of thing happened with mathematics, psychology, economics, maybe with logic. Philosophy has made lots of progress, it just doesn’t get credit for it because the new disciplines that philosophy spawns go their own way, ungratefully leaving philosophy with all the insoluble stuff. Why shouldn’t disciplinary speciation count as a kind of progress?
“I think it is a kind of progress. There was a field, once upon a time, called ‘philosophy’ which is quite different from what we now call ‘philosophy’, on whose questions quite a lot of progress has been made. The flip side of that is that if you look at what philosophy is now, what we’re left with isn’t dross, but we now have questions on which there’s been very little progress. The questions we now regard as philosophical are the ones on which progress is particularly difficult. Maybe the hiving off is a kind of explanation of where we are now, but it does raise the further question, what is it about these questions, the ones we now consider philosophical, what is it about them? Why is it so hard to make progress on them?”
But is convergence to the truth the right measure of progress? Philosophers have had other ideas. I’m thinking of Peter Hacker, who argues that philosophy tries to make a contribution to understanding, not to the store of human knowledge. It’s a conceptual exercise, and through it we try to understand how our concepts and our commitments hang together. That view of philosophy would save the phenomena, would give us a way to understand why there’s no convergence on the truth – but we’d still be able to say there’s progress in philosophy, progress of a different sort. Each generation has its own mess to sort out, has to figure things out for itself. Doesn’t philosophy progress by deepening our understanding of the world we find ourselves in, even if we don’t as a group converge on the truth?
“Hacker has a point. The word ‘philosophy’ means love of wisdom, and it would be hard to say that wisdom isn’t one goal of philosophy. I’m a pluralist about what counts as progress in philosophy. I think we’re after many things – understanding is certainly one of those things. I don’t want to say that truth is the be all and end all, but truth is one thing we’re after. A lot of philosophers get into philosophy to try and find out the truth, to try and find some answers. Why are we here? What is the nature of the mind? What is the fundamental nature of reality? Why is there something rather than nothing? We have questions. You come into philosophy wanting answers.
“Analytic philosophers typically function by putting forward theses as true and trying to argue for them. It looks like a method which is very much directed at trying to attain truth. There’s sometimes the view that we shouldn’t care so much about truth, we should care about understanding. I tend to think of that as a reaction to the fact that in philosophy truth is rather hard to find. There’s a kind of lowering of your sights – if we can’t get truth at least we’ll get something else: understanding, insight, exploration. There are these other values. I just want to insist that truth is a value we care about quite deeply, and with respect to progress on the truth we’re not doing quite as well as we’d like.”
Well all right, then why isn’t there more collective convergence to the truth in philosophy, at least as compared to the sciences? Chalmers thinks the answer has to do with the methods proper to philosophy and the methods proper to mathematics and science. Although we tell ourselves that testing philosophical conjectures with the cut and thrust of argumentation ought to leave only the best views standing, leading to greater and greater agreement on the big questions, in fact argumentation is lousy at compelling agreement.
“Proofs in mathematics and the experimental method in science seem to lead to agreement. In philosophy we have the method of argument, and that does not lead to agreement. That’s interesting. Why doesn’t it?
“In practice what happens in philosophy is that someone puts forward an argument – some premises, an inference to a conclusion – and we say well that’s an interesting argument, but it’s almost never the case that opponents are left without a response. Typically what happens is that an opponent thinks it through and says, ‘OK, I deny this premise or I deny this inference’. Usually that turns out to be a tenable move. If you try to do that in mathematics, deny an axiom, it’s awfully untenable. If you try to do that in science, maybe deny key observations or inferences, after a while that gets untenable.
“But in philosophy it doesn’t get untenable. Philosophers just figure out what premise of the argument they have to reject, and they elaborate their view accordingly. It leads to a greater sophistication of their views – a physicalist realises what commitments they have to take on to avoid a dualist argument, likewise a dualist recognises what commitments they have to take on to avoid physicalist arguments. Sometimes the commitments are antecedently surprising. Often the best you can hope for is making an opponent deny a premise that was antecendently plausible, chalk one up to you when that happens, but still it’s not enough to lead to conversion or agreement. It turns out that there’s quite a lot of stable ground in philosophy for many different disagreeing views to stand on, and that’s not so in mathematics and the sciences.
“Certain combinations of theses might get ruled out – if you’ve got this view then you shouldn’t hold that view as well. Someone might argue against one version of a view, which rules out some area in philosophical space, but a lot of ground is still left. So it goes all over the map, so it goes for the dualist, the physicalist, the idealist – some versions of these views are ruled out and some versions are left open, kind of like a Swiss cheese map of philosophical space.
This view of argument is deflating, but it does ring true. I’ve listened to a very large number of philosophical talks and debates over the years, and on no occasion have I ever witnessed a philosophical conversion – I’ve never seen a physicalist listen to an argument and promptly stagger into dualism. Chalmers says that, biographically, he’s won more people around with talk of the extended mind than he has with arguments against physicalism, and he speculates that this has to do with prior commitments – no one thought much about extended minds, so his arguments stood a better chance of gaining traction there. You can maybe swing the odd agnostic with an argument, maybe nudge a grad student who hasn’t made up her mind, but the rest of the time, we’re doing little more than pushing one another into more sophisticated sorts of disagreement. No one meaningfully budges.
If that’s right, then what exactly is the point of all the effort put into conferences and talks and publications? What are we doing when we present philosophical arguments, if, in fact, they’re not much good at pushing the philosophical community towards the truth?
“I guess I’m still naive enough to think of philosophy as a quest after the truth,” Chalmers says after a pause. “When I do philosophy my number one aim is to figure out the truth for myself. If I find an argument that’s good, that persuaded me, then I figure maybe if all goes well, I’m moving a little closer to the truth.
“There is of course the social and dialectical aspect of philosophy, and when we do put forward arguments publicly, I think we are trying to convince others. If you can bring around a few people in your audience or a few readers of an article, hey I feel like I’ve done pretty well. The article that suddenly convinces everybody of a conclusion, like Gettier’s article on justified true belief, is pretty rare. But somewhere in the back of all this is maybe the naive hope that someone might come up with the right argument that might show all of us the truth. After all it happens every now and then, once or twice in the history of philosophy there’s been a decisive argument. Maybe somewhere in the back of the mind there’s a thought, ‘Just keep trying’. Maybe it’s a little like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. This year! This time I’m really going to do it! Finally it’s going to be the argument that persuades the world! Maybe it doesn’t happen, but at least we get some enlightenment from the process.”
It’s not just the method of argumentation that’s the problem. Chalmers identifies all sorts of other things get in the way of our finding answers to the big questions: anti-realism about the subject matter of some problems, other problems might be verbal disputes, and sociological and psychological factors could also explain why answers elude use.
“In some cases I think the explanation is anti-realism or verbal disputes, but that still leaves a group of really hard cases, like the mind-body problem. I don’t think that’s just a verbal dispute. It’s a problem that’s really hard. Why are problems like this so hard? One move to make here is to start thinking about psychology. There’s something about the human brain or human evolution that makes these problems hard for us – Colin McGinn has pursued that line. Maybe there’s something to that, but that’s focusing on just one aspect of the problem. Maybe there’s something about us and something about the problems that just don’t quite mesh. That’s something I haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of, and I’m curious.”
In the end Chalmers says we just don’t know whether the answers to philosophical questions are beyond us or not. We’re not ideal reasoners, that’s for sure. Our brains are evolved things, good for some problems and probably not so good for others. But then why do philosophy? Why put so much time and energy into it, make it the work of a life, when, with two thousand years of hindsight, the prospects of success are starting to look remote? He tells me that since giving talks on progress he’s had emails from students asking why anyone should bother going into philosophy. I ask him how he replies.
“I say it’s an important question, and it depends on what you’re after. You ought to go into this so you’ll be happy even if you don’t get agreement, even if you don’t get at the truth. If the exploration of issues, understanding, enlightenment matter to you, if you want to learn a lot of stuff and have a wonderful time thinking about all these things, if that’s good enough for you, then by all means. But if you’re only getting into philosophy to solve problems, realise that the track record isn’t all that great.”
When I ask him what’s next, he says that rather than trying to bring physicalists around to his views, instead of fighting those battles forever, he just wants to get on with working out a constructive non-materialist theory of consciousness. It reminds me of a quote from Chalmer’s paper, great philosophers don’t argue. I ask him if he’s done with arguments.
“I’m an argument junkie. Despite knowing as a philosopher that you’re probably better off not presenting arguments, because people will just resist them, and you’d do better just presenting and working out a thesis, like the great philosophers did, I can’t resist. I just want to argue. It’s probably a bad prospect for my long-term longevity as a philosopher, but what the hell, I’m a junkie who has to keep going back, every time. Maybe that’s the wrong analogy. More like the surfer, who has to keep going out to surf the perfect wave. I’ve just got to get out there and surf the perfect argument.