13.3.10

A Philosophical Argument for Skepticism Towards Philosophy?

At heart I am a rationalist and a pragmatist. And although those terms have vague meanings, they do express my love of reason, and my willingness to throw out certain concepts for the sake of practicality. Hence it is difficult for me to understand people who are irrationalists, who love contradictions, and who strive to prove that we can't prove anything.

However, I like to entertain and even argue for opposing opinions, so I will present the argument viciously described in the title:

Some types of philosophy (philosophy of ethics, religion, etc...), as most will agree, are very different than sciences. They can not be construed to progress towards something, and hence, we cannot use induction to argue for their efficacy. (As a side note I just want to complain about how depressing this is because it shows that we have to assume that whatever logic based system of investigation we set up is progressing towards the truth if it progresses towards any uniform opinion whatsoever. We cannot set up a system that judges it from the outside and does not have logical foundations of its own and hence we, if we take this path, cannot avoid being involved in an infinite regress)

We can easily see that a philosopher's background correlates with his beliefs more closely than say, the facts known by science at the time. From reading their biographical information we can also see that their background caused them to have those beliefs; for even though correlation does not prove causation, we can intuitively reason about the mental states of others. This is the type of reasoning that leads us to conclusions like, "The person who wrote this historical document is an authentic witness to these events, and is not making it up.", is necessary for doing history, and hence is not dismissed easily without a worse skepticism raising its ugly head.

And when we reason about a philosopher's mental state, the only difference is that instead of seeing what caused them to write a historical document (could be greed, theological reasons, or a will to express the truth) we reason about what caused them to come to their conclusions e.g., "From his writings, we can see that he puts great value on his father's arguments for the existence of God, and hence his upbringing caused him to be a theist." It also should be noted that some religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, depend on this type of reasoning since they are based upon events that are argued to have happened in history. Does an honest reading of most philosophers' biographies lead one to believe that philosophers' beliefs are caused by their background? If yes, we may proceed.

If most philosophers' beliefs are caused by their backgrounds then we must apply the same reasoning to ourselves and ask: "Is there anything that would prevent my beliefs from being influenced by my background?", or, "Are we greater than the greatest philosophers?". If no, it is then obvious that we must doubt our own beliefs based on the fact that they are caused by our background, and if philosophy leads us to these beliefs and then kicks the legs out from under them, we must regard philosophy as a useless system since accepting it accepts that it cannot overpower our arbitrary biases. And that's all there is to the argument.

I personally get out of this quandary by observing that while most philosophers may indeed be "greater" than I, most may not be honestly trying to overcome their background biases. And I also think that it is much easier to read a historical document and discover the reason (honest or dishonest) that the author wrote it than trying to discover whether philosophy, or background, was the reason for the beliefs of a philosopher. So an honest reading of most philosophers' biographical information may lead me to believe that philosophers' beliefs are caused by their background, but I may also believe that the percentage that really search for truth is very small, so small it cannot be detected as an undercurrent in the tumultuous tide of correlated beliefs and backgrounds. So I may still believe that if I honestly search for truth I will not be effected by my biases in the end.

This of course requires what some might call "faith" and maybe it even requires there to be a god, of some sort, to orchestrate philosophy in a way that allows for everyone to come to truth (for I can't assume that I am the only one capable when so many others are probably very similar to me). There is no guarantee (or even intuitive likely-hood) that our reasoning in other areas, such as science, is also efficacious in these types of philosophy and there are no useful survival of the fittest arguments when it comes to true philosophies. A pacifistic philosophy might be true, but it may have long ago been wiped out by a false but violent one. However, these are larger questions and will take a larger post to address.

No comments: