Why philosophical conclusions are not reliable knowledge

Natural Philosophy
Natural Philosophy (Photo credit: Thingo)

Following Neil deGrasse Tyson’s wholesale dismissal of philosophy, there has been a lot of discussion on the value of philosophy.  As I’ve said repeatedly, I think philosophy has a great deal of value, but some of its defenders are tending to overstate what it can do.

I’ve already written a post on what I see as the difference between science and philosophy, but in summary, I think science is about reliable knowledge and pursuit of that knowledge, while philosophy is about exploring logical possibilities (at least philosophy in the broad analytic tradition) including possibilities where reliable knowledge is not or may never be available.

Is it fair that, by definition, I make science equivalent to reliable knowledge and put philosophy outside of it?  I think so because reliable knowledge is what distinguishes science from other endeavors.  It is what science does.

Science isn’t defined by one “scientific method” decreed by Galileo or Francis Bacon, but by a collection of methods that are used because they’ve been shown to work.  If new methods are found, science will adopt them.  Indeed, the methods of pursuing reliable knowledge have evolved and grown over the centuries and are constantly being debated.

For example, if taking a certain mind altering drug suddenly proved a consistently reliable way to gain knowledge, scientists would almost certainly adopt it, eventually.  (Although they would also certainly try to understand how it worked.)  This is because science is interested in gaining reliable knowledge, and will use whatever works.  (Admittedly, individual scientists are human and often have their own ideological hang ups, but later generations always seem to get past them.)

In other words, the methods of science are judged and evolve through a process that is itself broadly scientific.  Historically, this process accelerated after the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.  Of course, deciding to pursue reliable knowledge using reliable methods is a philosophical decision, but arguably one that philosophers only articulated after it had begun.  By the time Francis Bacon had written about the scientific method, it had been developing for a century.

Three models of change in scientific theories,...
Three models of change in scientific theories, depicted graphically to reflect roughly the different views associated with Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, and Paul Feyerabend. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This doesn’t mean that Bacon and later philosophers of science didn’t provide an important service.  Often scientists aren’t aware of the philosophy that they’re using, and having philosophers of science articulate it adds it into their later collective consciousness.  It’s why many scientists today talk about falsifiability and paradigm shifts.  These things existed before Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn described them, but weren’t understood the way they are today.

As is true for much of philosophy, the value is in looking at things in a new way, from a different perspective, perhaps calling attention to structures and relationships that have always been there, but that we weren’t conscious of before, such as paradigms, or perhaps arguing for a normative value, such as falsifiability, one that many scientists already held but now had a label for.

But of course, philosophy also explores ontological issues, that is issues of reality.  These are areas that science can’t explore, at least not yet, because no methods have been found to make reliable determinations.  Because philosophy is willing to look at issues where only logical possibilities can be explored, it has broader range than science.

But some scientists, observing that reliable information is not possible in these areas, conclude that they shouldn’t be explored.  If we can’t have reliable knowledge, if we can’t be scientific, they might argue, why spend time looking at them?  Won’t any conclusions we reach just prejudice us to the actual reality if and when it is reliably attestable?  And if so, isn’t any exploration of these areas really just mental entertainment?

English: An alternate version of :Image:Calabi...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My first response is to point out that this is largely what is done by some theoretical physicists and many other scientists exploring theoretical possibilities.  Every argument against philosophical exploration is also an argument against scientific theoretical exploration.  The only difference is that one takes place in the philosophy department, and the other in science departments, with the scientific versions possibly more likely to eventually face a reality check.

My second response is that many of the issues are simply ones that we are going to pursue anyway, so it makes sense to try to do it as rigorously and logically as possible.  Questions about free will, mind and matter, the existence of God, identity and the self, and many others remain interesting, even if they’re not always amenable to scientific investigation.

But what makes scientific conclusions reliable and philosophical ones just possibilities?  The answer for centuries has been empirical evidence, evidence of the senses, evidence gained either through observation or experiment.  Collecting this type of evidence serves as a reality check, literally.  Many compelling, elegant, beautiful theories have met their end in this reality check.  And looking at the world in this way has uncovered aspects of reality previously undreamed of.

Philosophy generally doesn’t have this reality check.  (Incidentally, neither do some speculative physics theories, nor some schools of economics or psychology, making whether or not they fall into the scope of science an ongoing debate.)  And without these reality checks, history has shown that conclusions are not reliable.  They could be right or they could be wrong.  They could be wrong either from bad logic or bad premises.

Php programming
Php programming (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyone who has faith in their ability to reason with flawless logic should try their hand at programming.  The best developers have bugs, logic problems, in their code.  Running software provides a stark reality check on program logic.  Novice programmers often find it immensely frustrating, and experienced developers have a healthy respect for the human limitations of getting the initial logic right.  To a large extent, bad logic can be spotted through extensive review processes, but testing and debugging remain an unavoidable part of the process.

Even if philosophical conclusions are based on impeccable logic or mathematics, they can still be wrong.  When logic or mathematics are applied to real world entities, we often don’t understand those entities as well as we think we do.  Logical conclusions are only as good as their starting premises, and while those premises may often be uncontroversial, they may still be wrong.  With no reality check, there’s no way to conclusively prove one philosophical conclusion over another.

This is why philosophical conclusions are largely personal ones.  Most philosophy instructors are keenly aware of this and often avoid imposing their own conclusions on students.  While deciding whether or not to accept evolution or the big bang is my personal choice, I’m not being scientific if I reject them.  But I can accept or reject free will or consequentialism, and my position will still be philosophical, albeit with fierce debates about whether it’s good or bad philosophy.

Of course, like anyone who has thought about philosophical issues, I’ve reached my conclusions, conclusions I personally think are correct.  I’ve reached my conclusions for what I deem to be good reasons.  But I have no way to reality check them.  In the parlance of software development, I have no way to debug them.  At least no way other than discussing them with others, which is one of the purposes of this blog.

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of assuming that our conclusions are the only valid conclusions, that our philosophy is so obviously right that no one could hold another, that anyone who doesn’t agree with us is obviously not thinking clearly.  But without the reality check, we can never be sure that we’re not simply blinded by our own biases.  And if there’s one thing the reality checks of science have repeatedly confirmed, as humans, even the most brilliant of us can be spectacularly wrong.

51 thoughts on “Why philosophical conclusions are not reliable knowledge

  1. You can imagine how much I agree with this SAP. Do you have any evidence that philosophical conclusions are unreliable?


    1. I thought you might have issues with this one. For evidence, I think you’d have to look at the history of those conclusions, such as the geocentrism, medical humors, four elements, etc. Of course, some conclusions, such as atomism, have been broadly right, and that’s why it’s worth doing.


      1. But those were not conclusions. They were speculations. Speculations are never reliable. And geocentrism is not a philosophical conjecture but a scientific one, which is why science can falsify it. I know of not one philosophical conclusion that has ever been proved wrong.

        I know that many people would agree with you about all this, but you’re talking to a heretic. I have complete confidence in philosophical conclusions and have found them to be reliable in all circumstances. I would bet my house on any of them.

        When we jump to conclusions we are not actually reaching a conclusion, and such speculations may well be wrong. But philosophy cannot be called unreliable just because philosophers are prone to endorse unreliable speculations instead of reaching reliable conclusions.

        If empiricism is ever shown to falsify a philosophical result then of course the game is up. Until then, I see no reason to suppose they are unreliable. Just as long as they are conclusions in a mathematical sense. Of course, I would agree that individual philosophers are often unreliable.

        Your philosophy instructors are clearly right to avoid imposing their conclusions on students. But they are wrong, I would say, not be imposing on them those conclusions that are not personal and which are completely reliable.


        1. I think my question would be, how do you then distinguish between philosophical speculation and what you refer to as a philosophical conclusion? At least prior to an empirical reality check?


          1. For me a conclusion would be demonstrable, like a mathematical conclusion. A speculation would leave us the option of dismissing it.

            Of course, one can always question the logical system in which we have reached a conclusion, but there is no evidence yet that Aristotle’s system is flawed.

            We can dismiss the idea that all apples fall down since it relies on speculative induction, but we cannot dismiss a conclusion of mathematical induction. That is a conclusion. So in certain respects I’d say the results of metaphysics are more reliable than those of physics. Mathematical and metaphysical conclusions are valid in all possible universes. The conclusions of physics may vary between universes.

            It would be up to us as all as philosophers to distinguish between conclusions and speculations, and if we cannot do this we are in a lot of trouble. We would have to concede that logic can never produce certain conclusions about Reality, since Reality may not obey the rules by which we reached the conclusion. But so far so good. There is no evidence yet that the universe is unreasonable or unsystematic.

            What there is a great deal of evidence that it is quite easy to confuse a speculation with a result of analysis. We are all prone to make this mistake. I feel you are right to criticise this confusion, but wrong to assume it is necessary.


          2. Thanks for the thoughtful answer. So, by conclusions are we only talking about mathematical or pure logic proofs? Or do they ever get into matters of ontology, morality, or other areas? If not, it seems to me a pretty small subset of what most find interesting in philosophy.


          3. We’re talking (or I am) about mathematical and logical proofs. I won’t say ‘pure’ logical because metaphysics has to describe the world, and we have to create meaningful concepts for the logic to operate on. But once the terms are defined, I’m talking about a process that could be translated into Russell’s symbolic logic, and therefore something mathematical. It is called the dialectic, the rules of which were codified by Aristotle.

            Bear in mind that most of what people call ‘philosophical conclusions’ are just the opinions of some philosopher or other, and are not demonstrably true and thus not conclusions at all, not in the sense that a mathematician would use the word, Such ‘conclusions’ are, as you say, highly unreliable. For me a conclusion is a proof. I suppose this is my only objection to your post, that you accuse philosophy of reaching conclusions that it does not reach, and then blame philosophy for their unreliability.

            We cannot avoid matters of ontology, morality, ethics, feelings, epistemology, logic, soteriology, physics, music, politics or anything else. Metaphysics is about absolutely everything and that’s the whole point and value of it. It’s what makes it so important. And it’s what makes it so significant that all philosophers I know of, perhaps with a handful of exceptions, have reached the same philosophical result. Even you have reached it, and your post demonstrates this. It’s just that we interpret this result in different ways. You see confusion and unreliability in this result, where I see order and certainty. Necker cubes and all that.


          4. Hmmm. Well, when I say “conclusion”, I’m thinking of the logical proofs I see in philosophy articles. I would agree that a dialectic, properly formed, is rock solid, if the premises are true. The problem is that the premises aren’t always true, or they aren’t quite true, or there are unrealized complexities. As I said in the post: perfect rock solid logic, but still a wrong result.

            It seems like you’re saying that the philosophical result everyone comes to is that there are no reliable metaphysical results. If so, then yes we do agree. But in saying I see “confusion and unreliability”, I think you may be reading more value judgment into the word “reliable” than I intended. It is what it is. I’m in no way saying that we should stop doing philosophy, only that we should be aware of this limitation. (And I’m saying this because several people over the last week made assertions that made me think they weren’t aware of it.)


          5. Ah well. We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. I have never seen an unreliable philosophical conclusion and, as I say, would bet my house that there is no such thing. If I thought you were right I would join Tyson and abandon philosophy immediately. No doubt we’ll be coming back to this though. Good chat.


        2. Guy, I’ve been having a conversation on another blog and would like to hear your thoughts on the claim that Philosophy has never produced a single fact. Do you have examples either way?


          1. Sure do. The most important fact it produces is that all selective theories about the world as whole are logically indefensible. This renders all metaphysical dilemmas undecidable.

            Empirical evidence would include the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness, and more generally twenty centuries of testing that has failed to refute this conclusion of philosophy.


          2. Thanks, but I’m a little confused by your answer. How, for example, would the theory of gravity be logically indefensible?

            By the hard problem of consciousness do you mean the location of consciousness? If so, can’t philosophy only point to speculations?


          3. The theory of gravity is not a philosophical conclusion. Regarding consciousness, the undecidability of metaphysical dilemmas, in this case the Mind-Matter dichotomy, accounts for and explains the ‘hard’ problem. In metaphysics we can calculate that Mind and Matter are not sufficient for a fundamental theory, and these calculations were being done long before scientific consciousness studies was invented. But the result is ignored, and a lot of time has been wasted trying to falsify it. It cannot be falsified,. It is a conclusion of philosophy.

            It is found in the sciences that this conclusion of philosophy cannot be falsified, and this, precisely, is the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness.


          4. Didn’t you say “all selective theories about the world as whole are logically indefensible”? That would include the theory of gravity, unless its excluded by your use of the word “selective.” What does selective imply?

            Mind-Matter dichotomy is a concept only. For all we know consciousness might simply be the brain sensing its own activity; a sort of delayed feedback. But again, this is speculation. Brain injury research would suggest consciousness is entirely material.


          5. The theory of gravity is just fine. It is not a theory of the world as a whole. It is a scientific theory.

            If you do not see that Mind-Matter is a dilemma, then naturally you will speculate that it has an easy solution. If one is ever found then philosophy will have been proved to be unreliable. Until then, however, it has nothing to worry about.

            I think maybe you underestimate the problem. The problem is that science finds it impossible to falsify any philosophical results. Consciousness is just one of many examples.


          6. This is where you’re loosing me. Apologies if i’m just missing something, but there is no result, just philosophical speculation. Nothing has been proven by philosophy concerning the mind. And that was my question: has philosophy ever revealed a tangible truth?

            As we seem to disagree on consciousness, can you give another example?


          7. Think about logical positivism. Why did this ‘ism’ become popular? It became popular because nobody is able to decide a metaphysical dilemma. This is THE result of philosophy. Kant puts it as, ‘All selective conclusions about the world as whole are undecidable’. It is a famous result, and as solid as a rock. Metaphysical problems, as they appear in western metaphysics, are undecidable because both horns of the dilemma are found to be logically absurd in every case. For instance, a theory for which Mind is fundamental is absurd, and a theory for which Matter is fundamental is absurd.

            You are seeing this as a failure of philosophy to reach a conclusion. In fact it is the most important and most general conclusion that can be reached in philosophy, for it implies all its other results. There is no possibility that anyone will ever falsify it. It is one of Wittgenstein’s facts.

            Most people ignore it. And most people cannot make sense of philosophy as a consequence. Understanding the meaning and significance of this result of philosophy would be the entire secret of understanding philosophy. I don’t think this is an opinion.

            If you’re not sure that consciousness is a problem, why not drop over to philpapers.com and check out the current debate. Mostly it consists of people trying to prove that materialism is true. Consciousness studies is a complete and utter shambles as a consequence. The results of philosophy cannot be overturned by science.


          8. Thanks for that, but I’m still not convinced you’ve even presented a “result.” As per the original question i really didn’t have an answer either way, hence the reason for asking it. From what you’ve said so far I’d have to say the answer is “No, Philosophy hasn’t produced a single fact.”

            Again, I might be missing something, but that’s how I’ve read this.

            Thanks though for taking the time. It’s appreciated. .


          9. I cannot understand your view John, so don’t know quite how to respond to it. You are dismissing the work of thousands of philosophers, including Kant, Plato, Nagarjuna, Bradley, Chalmers, Dennett, Carnap, Russell, Peirce, Melhuish and endless other well known names. I just don’t get it. But yes, let’s leave it. Thanks for the interesting chat.


  2. I liked what you had to say here SAP. Very thought provoking and I agree with the overall ideas. Maybe one thing I might say that offers a different perspective is that if a philosophical conclusion is based off of using both logic and empirical evidence then it could be said to be reliable. Of course then one could argue that they are relying on the fact that we can trust empirical evidence and logic (but I think you seemed to indicate that they are reliable in the post, at least the empirical part). And obviously not all philosophical conclusions are based on only these 2 kind of things, and that is where the sticky part is (and some would say that if a conclusion is based off of those 2 things then by definition it is not a philosophical conclusion, so there ya go).


    1. Thanks Howie, and good points. Is the decision to trust empirical data a philosophical one? (Or perhaps more accurately, solely a philosophical one?) I think we have centuries of experience that show empirical data is more reliable than other means of investigation. In other words, we have empirical data showing the reliability of empirical data.

      Some might argue that using empirical data to justify empirical data is circular, and they’d be right. And the problem of induction looms. So I guess at that point, it is a philosophical decision, but not one I have much doubt in. (Which admittedly can sometimes be the most dangerous ones.)


      1. I think we have centuries of experience that show empirical data is more reliable than other means of investigation.

        Yeah, I have exactly the same feelings as you about trusting empirical data. It has shown very reliable in making good predictions about what the future might be like. Logic/math as well.


        1. Logic/math as well.

          I agree, but to an extent. The further beyond empirical data we go with logic and math, the higher the probability that some unknown unforeseen contingency will render our reasoning or calculations wrong. We tend to focus on the cases where logic and reason made successful predictions and overlook the legions of failed ones.

          For example, one of the oft most cited examples of success is the mathematical prediction of the planet Neptune. Not nearly as well cited is that the same mathematics predicted the planet Vulcan inside Mercury’s orbit. The second one failed due to the then unknown limitations of Newtonian dynamics.


          1. the higher the probability that some unknown unforeseen contingency will render our reasoning or calculations wrong

            I think that “unknown unforeseen contingency” is the key, so yes I agree with that. I was referencing more just the pure use of the rules of logic and math.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Philosophy runs on its definitions, and to paraphrase one of my favorite philosophers, definitions are cheap, almost free. Natural philosophy has always served to keep metaphysics honest. It sets a price for the definitions, even if the base cost is minimal, and that’s important, because the difference between cheap and free is infinite – in theory.


    1. That’s a cool way of putting it. I’m not quite sure I’d agree that definitions are free in philosophy, but I guess it depends on which currency we’re talking about. For example, I could define God as the laws of nature, but at the cost of excluding much of what people commonly ascribe to God.


      1. Oh no, cheap is not free. Your example illustrates that very well. Guy’s comments illustrate the difference between cheap and free as well. It is, at least in part, the difference between consistency and reliability.
        You can find consistent arguments out there for substance dualism in the philosophy of mind. But substance dualism is no more a going concern in the philosophy of mind than Lamarckism is in biology, because the definitions which form the basis of the theory are not enforceable. We still have folks talking about property dualism and epigenetic inheritance, but those are not the same as the older ideas in the lineage. As Kuhn’s and Popper’s models suggest, theories are not falsified wholesale. But their conclusions don’t persist simply on the basis of logical purity either. That goes for metaphysics as much as it does for physics


        1. I would come at it differently. Substance dualism does not work. It is not a philosophical conclusion but the opposite of one. Score one for logic and metaphysics.


          1. Maybe I got your statement wrong then. You seem to imply that arguments based on the existence of a separate mental substance aren’t logically consistent, reach bad conclusions, and thereby demonstrate the non-existence of a separate mental substance. Is that accurate or am I off the rails:)?


          2. Ah. No, that’s not what I’m suggesting. I’m making a more general point. I’m saying that theories for which mind or matter are fundamental do not work in logic. This would be why we see that even as late as the 21st century, science and scientific consciousness studies still cannot find a workable fundamental theory.

            My point was that we should not blame philosophy for this. Philosophy reaches a perfectly clear result. It states that mind-only or matter-only theories do not work. Of course, this result is often ignored, but this would not be the fault of philosophy. This result has been known for many centuries, perhaps twenty or more, and it is perfectly reliable. It is true in all universes. Logic does not change with time or circumstances.

            To prove that philosophical results are unreliable we’d have to falsify one of them, and there is no sign that this one can be falsified. It is the cause of the ‘hard problem, which, as defined by Chalmers, is the problem of how to falsify a philosophical result and prove that mind or matter is fundamental. Likewise, as mentioned, it the cause of logical positivism, which assumes that this result must be wrong. Tyson’s view is likewise grounded in the assumption that this result is wrong, or not even a result. But chaos and havoc ensues when we ignore the results of philosophy, and progress is out of the question. .


  4. “Reliable knowledge” is a good marker. Maybe even “knowledge that is subject to empirical proof.” Science, not philosophy, does that. Of course, this still leaves quite a bit for philosophy’s scope. Art, poetry, ethics, love and friendships, some of our most deeply held values are “things not subject to reliable knowledge” and thus not reducible to a purely scientific analysis. Then again, one could argue that philosophy can reliable insofar as it uses logic – it starts with premises and works toward conclusions using the laws of logic (although empirical proof is more on the science side). Maybe, then, we can adjust and say philosophy can give us more or less reliable knowledge (i.e., reliable once the premises are granted) about areas that are not subject to empirical proof. Maybe science, too, requires prerequisite assumptions for its conclusions to hold true. Maybe they’re not that different, except for the empirical emphasis.


    1. Good points. My use of “reliable” was really just a label for low probability of being revised in the future. I think reliability is a continuum of sorts, with empiricism historically proven to have the highest reliability. Logical reasoning isn’t as reliable, but it is more reliable than intuition, and often logical reasoning is our best option. (Even though what value we put on empirical or logical investigation is inescapably intuitive.)


  5. Continuum is good. The whole tension between science and philosophy is modern. Back when science was a subset of philosophy (“natural philosophy”), the same guys were doing both. Lines in the sand were perhaps drawn deepest as 20th century academic departments started competing for funding (?) So science becomes the child who devours the father. The truth of ancient mythology wins after all. (““Myth is a report from the cellular memory bank; Myths humanize the recurrent themes of evolution,” Timothy Leary.)


  6. Liked your diagrams (Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend) as prompts for further thought. Also note a quasi-Marxist paradigm that suggests science, part of the cultural “superstructure,” provides a world view that reflects base conditions; i.e., the “organic” world view of Medieval times gave a kind of universal support for a society based on multi-tiered landed ranks, the mechanistic (Newtonian) world view pushes that aside and gives a kind of universal support for an emergent order based on abstract market forces, relativity offers a world view commensurate with the decentralized, multi-national capitalism that was then replacing the state-based capitalism. I’m not saying this paradigm is the one true paradigm, but it does give you pause to consider before granting science the absolute objectivity that it sometimes claims for itself. Maybe science, the dominant epistemological tool of the present age, falls short of its ostensible goal of decoupling truth from this or that cultural prejudice for once and for all.


    1. Thanks, but the only credit I can really take for the diagrams is selecting them from the Zemanta options. I find the implications of your comment interesting, that the current prevailing cultural frameworks influence the prevailing scientific paradigm. My gut reaction is that the opposite might actually be true, but it’s difficult to know for sure.

      How objective is science really? How separate is it from cultural prejudices? We can never know for sure, and history shows that science is definitely affected by the culture in which it takes place. (The effects of the racism of many 19th century anthropologists come to mind.)

      Still, it is a major goal of science to separate itself from those biases. And arguably, its procedures for accomplishing this are getting progressively better. Techniques such as blind and double blind protocols do everything they can to remove the tester’s biases and expectations from the experiment.

      How well do these techniques succeed? We can never know objective reality with absolute certainty, so there’s no way to be sure. There are pretty good ways to strain out cultural biases, but there may be species level biases clouding our picture. Still, the success record of science seems to indicate that we’re not completely fooling ourselves, for now.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. To run with your idea of scientific theories as cause and not effect of larger cultural shifts, I can think of some examples where science provided a trigger for artist-types to expand our imaginative landscape with new explorations of human identity. E.g. one can find empirical clues, as it were, that new experiments with electricity (in which cadavers were sometimes made to move) precipitated Mary Shelley’s pondering of human identity in Frankenstein, transfusion technology precipitated Bram Stoker’s pondering of human identity in Dracula, and the invention of the x-ray precipitated T. S. Eliot’s take on human identity in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Which makes me say thanks to both the scientist and the artist, each of whom makes a unique contribution to the human experience. (What the hell, let’s thank the scientist, artist, and philosopher all for advancing our range of fulfillment.)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I definitely agree. Science affects culture and culture, if nothing else, affects what gets explored scientifically and how we interpret scientific results. Many scientists would say that science fiction initially inspired them to get into science, science fiction which was itself inspired by earlier science. Feedback loop.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. It’s a very mixed blessing. Science inspired the Industrial revolution which led a major movement in poetry mourning the loss of the countryside.

            Oddly, a youthful passion for science fiction led me into philosophy, since science seemed to be a dead end. Funny old world.

            Liked by 1 person

  7. Fantastic post, one that I’ll have to come back to a few times, I think. The only thing I would add is how delightful and important unreliable knowledge can be sometimes – if only to train us for the inherent unreliability all around us at all times. I like how you point out how ubiquitous our unreliable assumptions are. In order to do anything at all, we have to act like we have answers to unanswerable questions. It’s good to know what those assumptions are and what they mean for our ability to discern the reliable from the unreliable!

    Sorry for this gauge jumble – I’m a little tired.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Michelle! I thought it was a very clear comment, and I’m grateful for your kind words.

      Good point on philosophy training us to recognize how much uncertainty there is out there. I think that’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned from philosophy, epistemic caution and humility.

      “I know one thing: that I know nothing” -Socrates


  8. I liked your thoughtful post. It seems that philosophy is always hunting for a proper methodology, upturning the ones that come before it. Do we look for foundations? First principles? Do we insist on consistency? “Do I contradict myself?” Etc. It’s as if it’s too revolutionary to really make progress the way science does. Maybe that’s the name of the game in philosophy. Perhaps we’re dealing in a realm too broad to have that reliable knowledge. We may have to be satisfied that our ‘reality check’ is wandering around like Socrates, bouncing our ideas off of one another in this haphazard way.

    Glad you stumbled upon me in the blogosphere. I’m following you now and look forward to meeting in the Agora.


    1. Thanks rung2diotimasladder! Your blog looks interesting. I’m looking forward to reading more of your stuff.

      I think it’s fair to say that most of the answerable questions have gradually been taken over by science, leaving the (currently) unanswerable problems for philosophy. But unanswerable or not, I know I’m still drawn to them, and want to think about them as systematically as possible.


      1. SAP – I respect your attempt to deal with these issues fairly. But if you hold on to this view then philosophy will become a dead end for you. Philosophical problems are answerable, and I’m struggling to think of one that isn’t. You’re looking at modern academic philosophy, which is a morass of terminal problems. Best to start at the beginning and work it out for yourself.


          1. I’m happy to agree to disagree SAP, but we don’t actually have to do so. This is a matter of facts and evidence, not taste and preference. But okay, I know you think otherwise.

            I thought I might change your mind, but I shall try to bite my tongue from now on.


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