In their paper “What do Philosophers Believe?” (to be published in the journal Philosophical Studies), David Bourget and David J. Chalmers have surveyed the position of thousands of contemporary philosophers around the world on various questions, from the existence of a deity and a priori knowledge to physicalism and Newcomb’s problem. Their paper can be found here.
This post is going to use the data presented in that paper to argue for fairly controversial positions with regards to academic philosophy: (1) the consensus positions they found in academic philosophy only regard trivial truths, such as the existence of a priori knowledge and the ability of our senses to be accurate, that (2) there is very little progress in academic philosophy and that (3) many academic philosophers promote anti-scientific beliefs in their belief in contra-causal freedom and their rejection of mind/brain physicalism. I will also discuss why it is important to move away from a priori armchair reasoning, how to salvage relevant aspects of academic philosophy and integrate them into interdisciplinary scientific research.
Consensus positions in academic philosophy regard trivial truths
So what philosophical issues did Bourget and Chalmers find a consensus position for? Although the percentage support needed for calling something a consensus position is often quite arbitrary, I will use the same percentage that Bourget and Chalmers use (70%). Looking at the main survey results, these were: a priori knowledge (71.1%) non-skeptical realism regarding external world (81.6%), atheism (72.8%) and scientific realism (75.1%).
So after debating thousands of issues for almost 2500 years, academic philosophers have reached a consensus that mathematical and logical knowledge exists, that our senses are able to acquire correct information from the world around us, that there is no evidence for the existence of supernatural deities and that science can describe the real world.
These are at best trivial truths and no surprise to most scientists. After all, they have used mathematics and logic in their research, gained knowledge about the world using their senses enforced by the methods of science all without actively invoking a supernatural deity to explain their results.
The results also goes to show that there is almost no, or at least very little, progress in the field of academic philosophy. The same questions are still being debated. In stark contrast, scientists use empirical evidence and it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain any contrary position as the evidence accumulate. Researchers reach consensus positions and just moves on. There is no scientific controversy regarding the existence of atoms, anthropogenic global warming or the fact of common descent. Certainly, there will always be a residual uncertainty about some details of different consensus positions, but science moves on.
Many academic philosophers promote anti-scientific beliefs
Not only are academic philosophers stuck, some of them are going in the other direction. This is demonstrated by the fact that 43.5% of academic philosophers reject mind/brain physicalism, almost 40% believe that abstract objects exists outside of human cognition in a non-physical world, around 14% believe in contra-causal freedom, 32% believe in the flawed pre-scientific notion of representationalism, and over 23% think that zombies are metaphysically possible.
All of these positions relate in some way to neuroscience denialism. The current mainstream position of neuroscience is mind/brain physicalism and so that means that 43.5% of academic philosophers reject a core scientific consensus position in neuroscience. The mind is what the brain does and since the brain cannot violate the laws of physics, it cannot have contra-causal freedom. Representationalism assumes some form of the Cartesian theater i.e. the notion that information from the outside are represented in some way inside the brain, but there is no homunculus inside the brain that observes these representations. Finally, zombies cannot be metaphysically possible as there is an intrinsic connection between the mind and the brain and so there is no way for a brain X to not have a mind if brain X does the exact same thing as brain Y that has one.
In other words, the most conservative estimate of the proportion of academic philosophers who subscribe to anti-scientific views regarding the brain is at least 43.5. Presumably, the actual figure is higher as there may be some academic philosophers who accept physicalism, but subscribe to at least one of the other positions discussed (i.e. platonism, contra-causal freedom, representationalism and the metaphysical possibility of zombies).
Imagine how absurd it would be if roughly half of all practicing biologists believed that atoms did not exist or that electromagnetism is a spooky supernatural power. Yet when almost half of academic philosophers are neuroscience denialists, it barely makes a ripple.
Academic philosophy is on the losing side of a war of attrition
There are many areas where scientific progress has forced academic philosophy to retreat: the origin of species, the development of the universe, the nature of matter, morality, aesthetics, life after death, the nature of the mind and so on. Can you come up with a single example where genuine philosophical progress has made rational and evidence-based science retreat? If any such example exists, they are extremely rare.
Although talking about vitalism and not academic philosophy, AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky makes the following point:
It is a failure of human psychology that, faced with a mysterious phenomenon, we more readily postulate mysterious inherent substances than complex underlying processes.
But the deeper failure is supposing that an answer can be mysterious. If a phenomenon feels mysterious, that is a fact about our state of knowledge, not a fact about the phenomenon itself. The vitalists saw a mysterious gap in their knowledge, and postulated a mysterious stuff that plugged the gap. In doing so, they mixed up the map with the territory. All confusion and bewilderment exist in the mind, not in encapsulated substances.
This is the ultimate and fully general explanation for why, again and again in humanity’s history, people are shocked to discover that an incredibly mysterious question has a non-mysterious answer. Mystery is a property of questions, not answers.
Therefore I call theories such as vitalism mysterious answers to mysterious questions.
This is precisely what I come to think of whenever I read philosophical objections to physicalism or arguments for contra-causal freedom or the metaphysical possibility of zombies. Do these people honestly think that a thought experiment inside their own heads about a fictitious female color scientist has the same evidential merit as scientific evidence?
In the end, academic philosophy is fighting a war of attrition. As more of the questions that academic philosophers regard as “their own” become the subject of empirical research and subsumed under scientific research programs, academic philosophy starts losing ground. It is difficult to find a suitable analogy, but imagine running a local Mom and Pop Store that sells coffee and groceries and one day having a Starbucks and a Wall-Mart supermarket open up next door. Not a comfortable situation, to say the least.
How to salvage academic philosophy
So do we just close all down philosophy departments and fire all philosophers? Of course not!
Instead, I envision the shattering of academic philosophy and that different subfields within philosophy that are worth keeping break off and become integrated with the closest scientific discipline and focus on interdisciplinary empirical research. Moral philosophy and aesthetics could be integrated with neuroscience, logic with mathematics or cognitive psychology, the philosophy of certain other fields (e.g. philosophy of history, philosophy of biology, philosophy of education etc) fully integrated with those fields etc.
Now I do not want this suggestion to be interpreted as merely an organizational change. Rather, it involves a shift in perspective and a way to move away from unproductive and anti-scientific acoustic feedback.
Here are some objections that I can imagine that critics could launch and my responses.
An assertion is not an argument.
This objection is flawed in three separate ways:
It rests of a fallacious equivocation: it confuses philosophy in the specific sense of academic philosophy with philosophy in a very broad sense of rational thinking. Obviously, I am not arguing against rational thinking, but rather that academic philosophy does not appear to be a productive strategy.
It is circular. If arguments about philosophy presuppose the validity of philosophy, then obviously the defender of philosophy must also presuppose the validity of philosophy. That would mean that in the very act of defending philosophy, such an individual assumes that which he or she is trying to prove.
The structure of the objection is roughly analogous to presuppositional apologetics. That line of reasoning is flawed and so I do not find this objection particular convincing.
When you understand why you do not consider the atomic theory of matter a “metaphysical position” (even though there exists a philosophical school of thought called atomism), you will also understand why I do not consider physicalism to be a “metaphysical position” (even though there exists a philosophical school of thought that has the same name).
Hint: both the atomic theory of matter and physicalism are strongly evidence-based. Either evidence is relevant for deciding whether something is scientific or metaphysical or it is not. If it is, then mind/brain physicalism is a scientific position. If it is not, then all scientific disciplines are metaphysical and the label “metaphysics” hold no rational value in this discussion (since all science attempts to describe the nature of reality).