Saturday, 14 January 2017

A continuation of the response to John Horgan

Part II of Horgan's 'tease' of philosophy and philosopher is up. My response will include a brief summary of my last open letter and a brief analysis of some issues with the content of Part II.

1. A brief summary of my first response to Horgan

First, Horgan should run his articles by a few professional philosophers before he dismisses a whole field. He wouldn't do that with the sciences or other highly theoretical fields. It wouldn't be appropriate to prejudge what he doesn't understand. Horgan isn't a professional philosopher; he's a science journalist, and this difference in expertise shows.

Secondly, Horgan may not have a well-rounded understanding of what he's written about in his book The End of Science, i.e. where science and philosophy of science intersect on inferring the future success of our presently best scientific theories. Thus, we shouldn't take Horgan to be an expert on this subject. He is a science journalist, and consequently, due to the fact that he is not well-versed in some elementary arguments in philosophy, falls short when it comes to analysis of the future prospects of science. Given his demonstrated limitations in argument when aiming his sights beyond scientific journalism towards a sub-discipline within philosophy, we need more than Horgan's word when he aims his sights once more at philosophy as a discipline as a whole.

Thirdly, Horgan insults not just philosophers; he insults highly trained craftsmen that play an important role in the sciences. Neither profession is archaic. (To throw this 'tease' back at Horgan, I would hope Horgan is aware that with advances in AI, much of journalism--including science journalism--may soon be and is in the process of becoming a 'wonderfully archaic profession'.)

Fourthly, Horgan includes passages that insinuate (or can be charitably read as implying) that part of the explanation for why philosophy cannot 'yield insights into reality as deep and durable' as the insights gleaned from science (and merely has some social, spiritual or aesthetic function) is that philosophical and scientific problems are one in the same, and this is a failure of philosophic method when compared to scientific method. But that insinuation (or charitable reading) is not true.

(An aside: I do hope Horgan intended to mean something other than this, but sadly, I cannot tell what Horgan's argument against philosophy is, other than this very objection. I have looked through his first post about a dozen times now, and all I could see of an argument was as follows: 'several prominent scientists, notably Stephen Hawking have contended that philosophy has no point, because science, a far more competent truth-seeking method, has rendered it obsolete'. This is the extent of any argument I could find in Horgan's first post. Maybe it's some fault of my own, and I just don't get it; I am trying to be as fair as I can to Horgan.)

Fifthly, Horgan sets himself up to be on the receiving end of criticism from professional philosophers because his (implicit and half-formed) arguments are not good. See: 'if improved methods of argumentation still aren’t yielding truth, do they really count as progress?' The answer is, as I explain, a resounding yes!

Finally, Horgan does a disservice to his readers by promoting distrust for experts. He has a duty to the public.

I bring up all these points because my concerns have not been allayed.

2. Some issues with Part II of Horgan's series

I suggest reading Horgan's article in full before proceeding. If you've read it, it helps to follow through on Horgan's reasoning in the first four paragraphs, since they are key to what follows:

An unnamed but eminent philosopher attempts to be nice to Horgan during dinner (paragraph 1). They retire to hold a small workshop on a Williamson paper, then Horgan says something (admittedly) foolish during a workshop; the philosopher undergoes a 'transformation': Horgan is rebuked by this eminent philosopher for saying something foolish (paragraph 2).

Horgan says he didn't take this rebuke personally (paragraph 3), then by analogy the rebuking by the eminent philosopher becomes the behaviour of a warrior (?) (paragraph 3). Horgan is reminded of other personal experiences which he doesn't share with the reader in which professional philosophers are aggressive towards one another (paragraph 4). He also says this behaviour is common (paragraph 4). The reader is left to infer that other cases of criticism involve the transformation from aged academics asking pointed questions in a Q&A (or, perhaps, graduate students raising their voices over the din in the pub) to a metaphorical verbal battle.

Horgan asserts scientists are not as verbally combative as philosophers (paragraph 4). Then comes Horgan's analysis of why philosophers are more verbally aggressive than scientists (paragraph 4): 'philosophical clashes, unlike scientific ones, cannot be resolved by appeals to data; they are battles of wits'.

There has been no argument for such a conclusion in the previous four paragraphs; Horgan has used a rhetorical trick to mask the assumption that arrives as a conclusion drawn from the previous claims. Or, perhaps, it was meant as an additional premise. Since it does not follow from the previous premises, I have listed it as a premise, rather than a conclusion. If we were to reconstruct the implicit argument in Horgan's four paragraphs, we would see something like this:

1. Horgan experienced a philosopher being argumentatively aggressive (paragraphs 1-3).

2. Philosophers are often argumentatively aggressive (paragraph 4)

3. Philosophers are more argumentatively aggressive than scientists (paragraph 4).

4. Philosophical clashes, unlike scientific ones, cannot be resolved by appeals to data (paragraph 4).

Implicit conclusion (?): since philosophers cannot appeal to data, philosophical argument is nothing over and above rhetorical combat ('Perhaps philosophy has devolved into mere competition').

The implicit conclusion, of course, is patently false: philosophers do appeal to empirical data! Horgan acknowledges this very point in the Post-postscript: 'Philosophers do of course occasionally cite empirical evidence for their arguments'. Horgan refutes himself.

Philosophers also appeal to argumentative data. Some argumentative data includes, for example, the discovery that two positions cannot be jointly held without leading to logical explosion, or that a set of premises produce an absurd conclusion.

I will give one example for how we can discover that premises can lead to an absurd conclusion: Horgan's argument. Horgan has not appealed to data (outside his personal experience being dressed down by an eminent philosopher). In fact, it seems nearly impossible to secure the necessary data to make an accurate assessment over whether philosophers are, on average, more argumentatively aggressive than scientists. Thus this issue cannot be resolved by appealing to data. Thus Horgan is engaged in the very activity he attributes to philosophers.

Given these facts, what should the reader conclude? Horgan takes some space in his article to assert (rather than argue) that the explanation for argument within philosophical discourse is due to the fact that philosophers are interested more in winning than wisdom: they are 'randy, status-seeking primates'. Horgan then immediately retracts this claim after presenting it, which is odd: Horgan rejects an explanation he first finds plausible. However, this rejection does not apply to Horgan himself.

Is Horgan engaged in an instance of Darwinian 'argumentative theory'? Is Horgan interested more in winning than wisdom? Is Horgan a 'randy, status-seeking primate'? Is this series of articles against philosophy nothing but an attempt at insulting the profession of an eminent philosopher that told Horgan off one time after dinner?

I don't think any of those things are an accurate depiction of Horgan's work. Of course Horgan's work is greater than merely status-seeking and waving his member around; he isn't merely attempting to get attention from others for page views and ad revenue. That's incredibly insulting! Horgan has ideas he wants to present, and we should focus on the substance of Horgan's arguments. That shows that we are taking Horgan seriously.

Thankfully, he can show that his interests are not just status-seeking by presenting some data: what data would help us determine whether philosophers cannot or do not appeal to data? What data would help us determine that philosophers are more argumentatively aggressive than scientists?

[Addendum: Horgan's reply has been as follows: 'You're shooting blanks at the messenger'. This does not bode well. Have I overestimated Horgan?]


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