books book reviews

Miscellaneous philosophy books

reviewed by T. Nelson

What Philosophy Can Do

by Gary Gutting
Norton, 2015, 304 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

G ary Gutting says this book is an introduction to philosophical reasoning. He starts out by saying that philosophy is applicable to everyday situations, such as political discussions, scientific discoveries, religion, and so forth. He gives a bunch of principles the average person can use to construct a valid argument.

One is the ‘Principle of Charity’, which states that to make an argument convincing, you should present the opponent's viewpoint in the most favorable light. By granting the presumption that your opponent is well intentioned, you increase the odds of convincing your audience that your dispute is with his reasoning, rather than his awful, awful hairstyle. The only way to do this, he says, is by learning what the opponents' viewpoint really is and by engaging their arguments.

This is something that is very much needed in today's Internet culture, and his writing style is clear and easy to read. But almost immediately he goes against his own advice. Here is his example on anthropogenic global warming, which he uses to illustrate how we should think about science.

There are a small number of climate scientists who doubt or deny AGW, and non-expert opponents of AGW usually base their case on criticisms of the consensus view raised by this minority. But such an argument misunderstands the logic of appeals to authority ... Given a consensus on a claim among recognized experts, we non-experts have no basis for rejecting the claim.

This reasoning is strange on many levels. If there are two conflicting consensus views, which should we choose? Is he suggesting that we must go with whichever side convinces us it is numerically superior? In fact if there is a ‘consensus view’ it is that the only authority in science is the evidence. Almost all arguments that appeal to authority of recognized experts are made by AGW believers. The skeptics are arguing that many of the ‘recognized experts’ are, in fact, activists, and the argument here distorts their position.

In the next chapter he argues against the idea that the Big Bang is creation from nothing by asking “...what about the theory's laws? They are something, not nothing—and where do they come from?” This again is a totally baffling argument. In what way do the laws of physics have existence without a physical universe? Is Gutting trying to resuscitate Platonic idealism? He doesn't say, and the argument just ends with Gutting concluding that philosophy is needed here.

Likewise, in his discussion of consciousness, the only argument he makes is to assert that philosophical thinking is still relevant. He says, for example, that a blind person who gains the ability to see red proves that there is a fact about redness that is not physical, and asserts that it is the business of philosophy, not science, to find it. But why? There is no real argument here, just a territorial claim.

The same thing happens in the discussion of Jonathan Haidt's scientific psychology of morality:

Here psychology must build on what we've learned from Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, as well as from the contemporary philosophers who continue their enterprise.

What is going on here? He merely states his opinions without bothering to justify them. It's as if he couldn't decide whether to teach philosophical reasoning or to tell us what to think.

In fact he is doing neither. This book is actually an example of what Christian theologians call apologetics. Gutting is not really teaching anything. He's trying to convince us that philosophy is not obsolete. Here is the most important sentence in the book:

Speaking to Google's Zeitgeist Conference in 2011, Stephen Hawking proclaimed that ‘philosophy is dead’ because philosophers ‘have not kept up with modern developments in science.’

This entire book is Gutting's attempt to refute that statement. It is a plea for relevance against the incursions into cosmology by science and the attacks on religion by atheists.

Perhaps, you might say, the criticisms above are just nitpicking, and we should look at Gutting's main message, which is that philosophical reasoning is not just for academics but is something we all need. Indeed, many philosophers have said that philosophy is not a body of knowledge, but a process. From that point of view Gutting's book may have some value.

But you could also argue that the last thing we need is for people to run around quoting Schopenhauer as an authority on scientific method. I can't help thinking that, as a defense of philosophy's territory, this book fails in its task, because it doesn't engage the arguments of philosophy's critics, and so cedes even more ground to them.

dec 23, 2015

Wittgenstein's Metaphilosophy

by Paul Horwich
Oxford, 2012, 225 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

B eing and Time. Being and Nothingness. Being and Event. For almost a century philosophers have written paeans to Being. Some have been awarded Nobel Prizes for it. But what, if anything, does ‘Being’ actually mean? What if it's just a figure of speech, and the writers of those 800-page doorstops might as well be talking about ‘The’?*

And what about questions like ‘What time is it on the Sun?’, ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’, ‘How does time flow?’, and ‘What is consciousness?’

Paul Horwich says that Wittgenstein viewed all these questions as pseudo-problems caused by misuse of language. This view has not received universal acceptance, and probably never will. But analytic philosophers have achieved great things with their focus on logic and language, which means that while continental philosophers were busy figuring out what Being is, analytic ones (especially Frege, who invented predicate calculus) actually came close to making a profit. Their work inspired programming languages like Lisp and CycL, which are still used today in artificial intelligence.

Even so, Wittgenstein's anti-theoretical philosophy and bizarre writing style remain controversial. A.W. Moore called his Tractatus “word salad.” Some say Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations (PI) are two different philosophies. Others say there are three or more.

The problem arises at the end of Tractatus, where Wittgenstein says “he who understands me finally recognizes [my propositions] as senseless” and advises them to, so to speak, throw away the ladder. So do we just take this proposition as rhetorical, or do we take him at his word and toss his book in the trash? Wittgenstein is opposed to theories, but isn't all philosophy theoretical, just by definition?

Even if some of it is senseless, says Horwich, senseless is not the same as gibberish. Horwich's theory is that Wittgenstein's philosophy not only makes a certain amount of sense, but is a single coherent body of work that evolved in the years between Tractatus and PI.

Horwich gives this famous example of a pseudo-problem caused by language:

Three guys rent a cheap hotel room. The room costs $30/night and each guy pays $10 to the landlady (this is a very old example). Then the landlady realizes the room is only $25/night. She gives $5 to the concierge, who gives one to each guy and keeps two as a tip. So the three guys have paid $9 each, for a total of $27, and the concierge has $2, for a total of $29. What happened to the other dollar?

This is only a language trick, not a real problem, but philosophers, said Wittgenstein, get caught up in trying to solve them as if they have real meaning.

The difference between Tractatus and PI, says Horwich, is that the latter uses a more natural concept of language. It is not true, as Wittgenstein originally thought, that “Logic provides an a priori, metaphysically necessary structure for thought and the world.” The new & improved Wittgenstein now says that our language is not just a representation of facts; meaning comes from how words are used, and philosophical problems derive from mistaken analogies.

Horwich says Wittgenstein's comments about private language have also been misunderstood. Communications about sensations such as pain are examples of what Wittgenstein called a “putative private language.” He doesn't say such a language is impossible, only that there is no point to it.

Stylistically this book is a mishmash. Some parts are clear, while others are flashbacks to the 1990s, when people randomly mixed she, he, and they in their text, sometimes all in the same sentence, as if deliberately trying to trip up the reader. Other parts are like this:

To see this, notice that the observation that S has until now used w pretty much as we do is canonical inductive evidence for the genuinely factual conclusion that S has had, and still has, a general tendency (propensity, disposition) to use w in that way. [p. 164]

That's a long way to go to say that S used w because S uses w.

Horwich seems to believe that if something's not a philosophical question it is unanswerable, and tries to show that the questions like those mentioned above are meaningless. But they aren't—they just aren't philosophical problems. So we should be grateful that philosophy has finally gotten tired of solving them. Astrophysicists, physicists and neuroanatomists might say: We'd like those problems back now, thank you very much, if you're done mangling them.

dec 26, 2015

* This is not as far-fetched as you might think: see the section "Definite Descriptors" in Sider's Logic For Philosophy (p. 113).