books on analytic philosophy


book review score+3

Analytic Philosophy:
The History of an Illusion
by Aaron Preston
Continuum, 2007, 190 pages
reviewed by T.J. Nelson

Aaron Preston says that analytic philosophy is an entrenched orthodoxy that dominates professional standards for judging good and bad philosophy. But, he says, it is not a coherent movement. Let's think about this. Can an incoherent movement be an orthodoxy? Why is it so important for it to be a movement? Is it time to create a post-analytic tradition? Or is Preston just reflecting the universal human instinct to rebel?

Preston is worried that philosophy as a whole is losing its grip on fundamental human problems. AP has a reputation of being dry and technical. It has been argued that, with its emphasis on language and logic, it is too influenced by science, which tries to give solid, understandable answers to basic questions and work its way up, as opposed to the traditional approach of finding answers to big important questions and working one's way down. Preston argues for a more therapeutic, less hegemonic, and less abstruse vision for philosophy.

Outsiders might suspect that what's really at stake here is who gets to sit at the head of the table in the faculty lounge. Preston clearly has a pile of axes to grind. But he also gets to the heart of what philosophers should do. Should they try to answer big questions or should they build a solid foundation first?

This is an important metaphilosophical question, and observing the debate is a good way to get introduced to analytical philosophy. But it could be said that when philosophy is done properly, as with the Socratic method, we know less about the subject after studying it than before. Much of the book is dedicated to discovering what AP is not, the intent being to show that it offers little of importance. So if he succeeds, readers may find that they actually know less about AP after finishing this book than before they started. Indeed, they may discover that AP does not exist at all, but, as the title says, it is only an illusion, in which case reading this book will have been all for naught.

Of course, the author doesn't go that far. But maybe he should have, because the true goal of philosophy is not so much to learn the truth, but to eliminate the false. But if it had succeeded, there would have been no need for Russell or Wittgenstein, and no need for Aaron Preston to question their goals, and we would never have gotten this book.

dec 22, 2014

book review score+3

Current Controver­sies on Experi­mental Philosophy
by E. Machery and E. O'Neill, eds.
Routledge, 2014, 160 pages
reviewed by T.J. Nelson

Sit down before you read this. Philosophers are starting to pay attention to what ordinary people think. They're actually going out and measuring it. I am not making this up!

In this professionally written collection of articles, the authors all refer to each other's chapters, as if they had shared early drafts with each other. This seems like a great idea that other multi-author books would benefit from. There are four sections: language, consciousness, free will, and epistemic intuition.

Observation has always been a great way of obtaining knowledge. Philosophers of science have used it for years. It can provide empirical starting points for philosophical speculation; data useful in debunking other philosophers' speculation; and ways of eliminating bias from one's own philosophical speculation. All very valuable things.

In a sense philosophy has always been experimental. What is Being if not consciousness? We all got one of those. So the question becomes: what can studying how other people think tell us about consciousness? Probably a great deal—if the right experiments can be devised.

You might think philosophers might do fiendishly clever experiments to determine whether the world is real, whether nothingness actually exists, whether humans really are programmed to be cut off from reality, whether we're actually a brain in a box, or maybe solve some of those eternal mysteries like why there are no good Michio Kaku jokes, why the early bird is such a fierce predator, why actress Anne Francis never blinked, or how can a ‘thing’ be ‘in itself.’ But for the moment they're starting out small.

In a typical experiment, philosophers show subjects a robot picking up a red box and ask them whether the robot saw red. Some say yes, some say no. Interesting. But what does that tell us about perception or qualia? The general idea is that a conscious being has agency and experience. They conclude that people are willing to attribute agency to a robot, but not experience.

Of course, anybody who's not from Mars would know this already. But there's something to be said for starting with simple experiments that can be easily interpreted and working up from there.

This is what experimental psychologists have done for decades. What they've discovered, though, is that it's pointless to ask participants their opinions, because they will either (a) be mistaken or confused, (b) tell you what you want to hear, (c) lie to protect their self-esteem, or (d) pick an answer at random because your question is ambiguous. Psychologists know you have to create a hypothesis, set up a situation, and then observe actual behavior—not their speech—and deduce whether their actual behavior supports the hypothesis. If you asked the subjects how they would act you'd end up studying mush. Many of the ‘experiments’ described in this book do just that, and the results are scientifically and philosophically uninteresting.

The authors recognize there's a problem; their response is to do cross-cultural studies. But as interesting as they may be, that won't help.

For example, Joshua Knobe relates an experiment where subjects were asked: if somebody kills his wife and children to be with his mistress, is he morally responsible? They said yes. Then they were asked in a universe where everything was caused by something else, are we responsible for our actions? They said no. Et voilà, a contradictory result.

In the 2010 Nahmias and Murray experiment, subjects had to choose between two possibilities:

A: Everything in the universe is caused by whatever happened before it.
B: Everything in the universe is caused by whatever happened before it—except for human decision making.

Almost all of them picked B. Knobe says the researchers were very puzzled by these results, and that further investigation is needed. No doubt. But the problem is that their experimental design is fundamentally flawed. These results only tell us one thing: what people say when asked a philosophical question. Technically, these are not really experiments at all. At best, they are doing anthropology.

At this rate I expect experimental philosophy will struggle along, maybe going in and out of fashion, until neuropsychologists and AI researchers discover how consciousness works. Then the field will explode, because then there will be real philosophical and ethical questions for them to solve. They should jump to AI now while the jumping is good.

jul 26, 2015