Removing the Head, or Destroying the Brain, Part XI: The Heuristics

When evaluating a discipline, there are many questions which must be asked. However, there are two that are paramount:

What is the signal-to-noise ratio?
and
What is the importance of the signal?

Reworded, those questions become:

How much of the field is garbage?
and
How valuable are that parts that aren’t?

Ask those questions about, say, engineering. Then ask them about modern philosophy.

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24 Responses to “Removing the Head, or Destroying the Brain, Part XI: The Heuristics”

  1. Without having read terribly much engineering, I’ll grant (as it seems likely) that engineering has a high signal-to-noise ratio. And it certainly seems to me that, taking philosophy as a whole (thus including, for example, the French), the signal-to-noise ratio is relatively very low. However, given the impact that 20th-century philosophical work had, I’ll have to rate its value as very high – the good parts would probably be more valuable than the good parts of engineering. A lot of ideas we take for granted (like empiricism, pragmatism, physicalism, or most of philosophy of language) are mainly 19th/20th-century ideas. And that’s not to mention the things that aren’t even settled yet, like ethics, that had huge developments in the 20th century.

  2. Maybe the problem is that while in engineering, you get your ass kicked by reality if you make a mistake, you don’t in philosophy. You could go on thinking morality is objective for example, and it wouldn’t necessarily affect your life too much. One way to remedy this situation somewhat, of course, would be to ridicule bad ideas in philosophy more. Kind of like ^.

  3. “However, given the impact that 20th-century philosophical work had, I’ll have to rate its value as very high – the good parts would probably be more valuable than the good parts of engineering. A lot of ideas we take for granted (like empiricism, pragmatism, physicalism, or most of philosophy of language) are mainly 19th/20th-century ideas.”

    Um, scientists developed those ideas.

    Or more precisely, the actual working versions of those ideas. Philosophy developed its own ideas and gave them the same names.

  4. Isak,

    It’s funny that you bring up moral objectivism as an example. If one were truly an ethical nihilist, one would have no reason to go to work or eat food instead of flailing about on the floor or drinking drain cleaner. I think that’s obviously a case where reality can kick your ass. And I think it’s easy to see that ethical subjectivism isn’t any better – do you think it’s coincidental that neither of us is drinking drain cleaner?

  5. “If one were truly an ethical nihilist, one would have no reason to go to work or eat food instead of flailing about on the floor or drinking drain cleaner.”

    Organisms generally don’t flail about on the floor or drink drain cleaner. Actually, humans are pretty much unique in their propensity to consume that substance when it is made available to them.

    Do you consider say, rats, to be philosophers? Are they non- ethical nihilists? Do you believe they hold ethical positions?

    What about paramecia?

  6. Okay, I was being fast and loose with my terminology. Let me try again.

    If ethical nihilism were true, then one would have no reason to refrain from drinking drain cleaner. Clearly there are reasons for people to refrain from drinking drain cleaner.

    There also may be reasons for rats to refrain from drinking drain cleaner. If there is a fact about what’s good for a rat, then drinking drain cleaner is likely not it. I’m willing to be agnostic about what’s good for rats – I don’t really care about them.

  7. Just because people have some degree of interpersonal agreement about preferences does not mean that those preferences are objective. You could go somewhere where nobody likes to listen to Britney Spears, but that doesn’t mean that there is some objective moral law that “Thou shalt not listen to Britney Spears.”

    You say there are reasons people don’t eat drain cleaner. Well, there are also reasons why people don’t listen to certain artists, but I hope you’ll agree that musical tastes aren’t objective.

    I think the reason why almost nobody drinks drain water is that even if they do like the taste of it (which is quite unlikely), drinking it would make it harder for them to satisfy other preferences.

    Sorry if I derailed your thread, Melendwyr.

  8. I’m not sure I’m willing to grant that the value of music isn’t objective, independent of the question of whether musical tastes are objective. (note: by equating ‘value’ with ‘taste’ you’re actually begging the question in favor of a form of subjectivism).

    If you can specify a reason why almost nobody drinks drain cleaner, how is it that you claim that reason isn’t objective? Are we suffering from some weird semantic offset where ‘subjective’ in your field means ‘objective’ in mine?

    ‘drinking drain cleaner’ being bad depends upon facts about the world. If it were not the case that drinking drain cleaner would kill me (and instead it was quite yummy), it would not be so bad to drink drain cleaner. My continuing to insist that it would be perfectly fine to drink drain cleaner in the case that it’s deadly, would be a case where I’m mistaken about what’s good.

  9. It might be sensible to drink draincleaner if you want to kill yourself. If you want to read some philosophical arguments for the legitimacy of suicide, go to http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com/

  10. tggp,

    It’s a really awful and painful way to go. It starts by dissolving parts that aren’t really vital to live.

    I met a guy once whose esophagus and stomach were dissolved by drinking the stuff, and he was saved by doctors connecting his intestines directly to his throat. His breath was awful.

  11. When I say subjective, I mean that nobody could prove that someone acted wrongly. For example, if someone likes Britney Spears music, I cannot prove to them that they should not like Britney Spears music. Or if someone’s favorite color is pink, I can not prove to them that it should be blue. If you can, I’d love to hear your argument.

    I couldn’t prove to someone that they shouldn’t use drain cleaner to kill themselves either. Even if it is an awful way to go. Maybe they like the taste of drain cleaner so much that for them it is worth the costs.

    When you said “depends on facts about the world” it sounds like you accept Huemer’s argument. I have a post that points out the problem with his argument here:

    http://nos-i.blogspot.com/2009/01/did-huemer-prove-moral-objectivism.html

    By the way, anyone know if there a way to change one’s wordpress icon without having a wordpress blog?

  12. Isak,

    To not answer your question (but probably still be helpful) you can get a wordpress.com account and set up a profile and nothing makes you blog.

  13. Maybe they like the taste of drain cleaner so much that for them it is worth the costs.

    Or they’re bored with taking drugs, cutting themselves, and crying while they masturbate.

    I love how a post hating on all of philosophy manages to spark a debate on moral realism. You can’t get away from doing ethics.

  14. And the debate has been about as productive as philosophy in general, too.

    My work here is finished.

  15. Are you talking about Rawls? Nagel? Nozick? Frankfurt? Judith Jarvis Thompson?

  16. I’m familiar with some of those names, less so with others.

    But what have any of them found that’s important and worth knowing?

    Even better, what do they have collectively? As a group, do they have things that outweigh the discoveries of, say, Sir Robert Boyle?

  17. That wasn’t meant to be rhetorical, Sister Y.

    I’m afraid there aren’t many names you could pull out of philosophy’s hat that I’d approve of.

    Voltaire is one of the rare exceptions. He’s good enough that I would be willing to call him not-a-philosopher.

  18. I never understood the no-true-scotsman thing until now.

    I will bite. How do you get a political system without philosophy? And shouldn’t reason be applied to ethics? Isn’t philosophy and the move toward coherence kinda what wakes us up from religion? I would agree that the benefits of philosophy don’t trickle down to the masses the way those of science do, but I’m not sure that’s the proper criterion for assigning value. (It doesn’t seem to work in aesthetics, at least.)

    Is what you object to in philosophy the big words and pretentious-sounding language? (That is why I object to modern literary fiction.)

    I would recommend: a good translation of Euthyphro, Frankfurt’s essay “On Bullshit,” Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” (published two years before Roe v. Wade), and Nagel’s “War and Massacre” and “Sexual Perversion” while you’re at it. But then, I have been brainwashed into thinking philosophy is important, so perhaps I’m only trying to lead you astray.

  19. “I never understood the no-true-scotsman thing until now.”

    That strongly suggests that you don’t understand it now. That fallacy does not say that you can never reject something as not belonging to a category, merely that you can’t change the criteria to make them match your whims.

    “How do you get a political system without philosophy?”

    What a ridiculous question. How did people get political systems before Socrates came up with that concept?

    For that matter, how do people get political systems now? To my knowledge, people pay as little attention to philosophy when acting politically as when they perform any other kind of action. Do people call on Kant when they fix a car or install a sink?

    “Isn’t philosophy and the move toward coherence kinda what wakes us up from religion?”

    Philosophy isn’t a move towards coherence. It varies, but depending on who you’re talking to and about, it’s a rejection of coherence itself, or a rejection of the standards that produce useful coherence.

    Art history doesn’t converge on one true style, because it’s never meant to produce conclusions. It’s merely descriptive. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because that’s what it’s supposed to be.

    ‘Philosophy’ should be proscriptive, but instead it consists almost entirely of assertions and historical discussion of assertions that have been made. There’s nothing wrong with keeping track of the history of ideas. There’s a great deal wrong in pretending it’s something other than it is.

    “Is what you object to in philosophy the big words and pretentious-sounding language? (That is why I object to modern literary fiction.)”

    No, I object to the pretence, not the seeming of pretense.

    “I would agree that the benefits of philosophy don’t trickle down to the masses the way those of science do,”

    What benefits would those be?

    “But then, I have been brainwashed into thinking philosophy is important”

    Oh, please.

    If you think it’s important, and wish to convey to me the reasons why you think so, why don’t you? If you don’t wish to convey those reasons to me, why do you then object to my conclusions? If you care what I think you should care to provide me with the evidence necessary to correct my position, or else acknowledge that you can offer no grounds to do so.

  20. How did people get political systems before Socrates came up with that concept?

    (a) There are pre-Socratics, and (b) yes, and they were shitty political systems, and also (c) do you think the Constitution came out of a test tube?

    Do people call on Kant when they fix a car or install a sink?

    In real life, people are monkeys, but they should think about philosophy when they do things like decide whether to hit their children or vote for a guilty verdict on a drug charge or seduce a priest or tell their oblivious vegetarian friend that actually there’s pork in the broth.

    What I meant by “aesthetics” was not art history, but the value of various kinds of art. Not nearly as many people enjoy the benefits of Gieseking as enjoy the benefits of, say, Jessica Simpson, and yet . . . even if no one listened to Gieseking, his music would still have great value.

    I’m not sure where you got the idea that philosophy should only be proscriptive (like the Ten Commandments?) or even prescriptive. Even in ethics, you’re not just after rules, but also explanations and distinctions and stuff. The continental crap may be made up solely of bare assertions, but good philosophy is made of arguments.

    Some of the ridiculous, awesome Medieval religious “proofs” have inherent aesthetic value, though.

    It varies, but depending on who you’re talking to and about, it’s a rejection of coherence itself, or a rejection of the standards that produce useful coherence.

    I’m not sure where you got this idea. Exactly the opposite is true.

    What benefits would those be?

    Truth, brother.

    If you think it’s important, and wish to convey to me the reasons why you think so, why don’t you?

    This question reminds me of this other thing I was just reading. Also of trying to convince my spacey historian friend that evolutionary psychology is actually important. Does she hate ev psych because she refuses to read any serious ev psych papers, or does she refuse to read the papers because she hates ev psych?

  21. “(a) There are pre-Socratics”

    But they didn’t do ‘philosophy’, because that label hadn’t been created. But they did do philosophy if you consider it to be abstract investigation into the nature of things.

    Your objection is to a label. I say that what people called ‘philosophers’ do is mostly not philosophy, and the discipline we call ‘philosophy’ is mostly garbage and non-information. If we were to use words consistently we would have to find some other name for those academics. ‘Sophists’ has already been coined.

    “they should think about philosophy when they do things like decide whether to hit their children or vote for a guilty verdict on a drug charge or seduce a priest or tell their oblivious vegetarian friend that actually there’s pork in the broth”

    They should think about the academic discipline? Which of the contradictory positions within ‘philosophy’ do you believe they should think about? And more importantly, why?

    “even if no one listened to Gieseking, his music would still have great value.”

    In what sense? If you’re going to postulate a objective property by the name of ‘value’, what evidence will you present to a neutral skeptic to convince them that the property is real?

    I can make lots of assertions about the physical world that physics can evaluate and show to be true or false. Can philosophy show your assertion about Gieseking to be true or false? Can it distinguish it from the claim that Gieseking is worthless?

    “Even in ethics, you’re not just after rules, but also explanations and distinctions and stuff. The continental crap may be made up solely of bare assertions, but good philosophy is made of arguments.”

    We can make an argument for any point, for any position. What distinguishes one argument from another?

    “Some of the ridiculous, awesome Medieval religious “proofs” have inherent aesthetic value, though.”

    No, they don’t. There is just as much support for that opposite claim as there is for yours. We should therefore take no position, as the matter is undefined and undecided.

    “I’m not sure where you got this idea. Exactly the opposite is true.”

    Oh, really? Give me an example of a finding produced by philosophy, and show me the objective demonstration of that finding’s validity.

    “Truth, brother.”

    That’s hilarious. If you want truth, you have to go to the sciences — and even then it’s always conditional and uncertain.

    “Does she hate ev psych because she refuses to read any serious ev psych papers, or does she refuse to read the papers because she hates ev psych?”

    If she’s read enough ev psych to recognize that there’s lots of garbage in the field, she may be dismissive of the field as a whole as a result.

    That doesn’t mean she should deny that there may be specific works that are valauble in ev psych. But given the sorts of evidenceless just-so stories that were routinely presented as examples of evolutionary psychology, I’d say she’s quite right to say that the field is garbage.

    The minimum standards in a discipline determine the value of the field as a whole.

  22. […] Y has made a claim that a particular musician / composer has objective […]

  23. the discipline we call ‘philosophy’ is mostly garbage and non-information

    I’m not seeing your evidence for this. You said you haven’t read much of it.

    As with ev psych, reading a few crappy papers gives you reason to be suspicious of a discipline – not to dismiss the field.* There’s plenty of ev psych that has its appropriate form of rigor, which is empirical rigor. There’s plenty of modern academic philosophy that has its appropriate form of rigor, which is not like scientific rigor.

    Your final claim – which, if I’m reading right, is your central claim that justifies getting rid of philosophy as an academic discipline – seems to be pulled out of nowhere. At any rate, I’m not sure what, in your mind, exemplifies the low point in modern philosophy. Does the typical paper in the journal Ethics suck, in your book?
    ——

    *In real life my friend’s problem is the opposite – she is a bit of a blank-slater who believes that culture and the individual determine everything. Also she believes in orgone energy and homeopathic medicine.

  24. “You said you haven’t read much of it.”

    I’ve read a great deal of it, but ignored much, much more.

    “There’s plenty of modern academic philosophy that has its appropriate form of rigor, which is not like scientific rigor.”

    Wrong.

    In more than one way, actually.

    “Your final claim – which, if I’m reading right, is your central claim that justifies getting rid of philosophy as an academic discipline – seems to be pulled out of nowhere.”

    It follows directly from my observations that the standards that determine what is and is not ‘philosophy’ are not capable of supporting truth claims.

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