June 09, 2007

Philosophy and Common Sense (Frances)

Not every philosophy professor takes philosophy seriously in the sense that she thinks that some purely philosophical theories that go against common sense have a good chance to be true. These philosophers respect anti-commonsensical theories, in that they admit such theories are very important in the pursuit of philosophical understanding. But they also think that there is no real chance that they are true. If you have a valid argument based not on scientific but purely philosophical reasoning, and that argument concludes with something against cross-cultural and timeless common sense, then at least one of the premises isn’t true, or so they say. It might be tremendously difficult to identify the mistaken premise, but we can start our investigation off assuming that our assumption that the conclusion is false is safe. These philosophers take philosophising seriously, of course, but they don’t take seriously the idea that purely philosophical (so not empirical, not mathematical) theories have a good chance at overthrowing parts of common sense. Here is a good sample of anti-commonsensical philosophical theories.

1. 2 + 2 doesn't equal 4. (No positive mathematical truth.)
2. No vague claims are true. (Sider and Braun 2007.)
3. There are no people. (Peter Unger.)
4. Thermometers have beliefs. (Certain information-fanatic philosophers.)
5. There are no chairs. (No non-living composite physical objects exist.)
6. Stones are not solid objects. (Inspired by Sir Arthur Eddington.)
7. No one has ever had a dream. (Norman Malcolm at one point.)
8. Cats don’t feel any pain when their paws are cut off. (Descartes.)
9. The world could not have turned out even a bit better than it actually is. (Leibnizians.)
10. It isn’t wrong to torture young children purely for fun. (No moral truths.)
11. Kant didn’t live after Descartes died. Alternatively: Nothing ever happened in the past. (Time doesn’t exist; isn’t “real”.)
12. No one has ever done anything because they wanted to do it. (Various reasons.)
13. Rocks have mental characteristics. (Idealists.)
14. There could be two wholly physical objects that during their entire existence occupied the very same space and were composed of the very same particles in the very same manner. (Some contemporary metaphysicians.)
15. Other statue-clay claims.
16. Supervaluationism stuff about true disjunctions without true disjuncts.
17. Dialethicism; true contradictions.
18. Taking one cent from a rich person can make them no longer rich. (Epistemic theory of vagueness.)
19. No one is free to do anything. (No one is free, period.)
20. No one knows anything, or much of anything. (Radical sceptics.)

I hate that attitude. I wonder: what percentage of contemporary philosophers are allergic to anti-commonsensical theories?


Brit Brogaard said...

What about:

(21) It isn't the case that we always fail to have knowledge in Gettier cases.

This is an anti-commonsensical truth to me, but those who hold it do not simply hold it on the basis of an allergic reaction. They claim to have empirical studies showing that it is true.

Also, what you call 'common-sense', I call 'intuition'. I don't think one should rely too heavily on intuition, but it surely ought to play a role. In fact, it plays an important role in the hard sciences. Heuristics, abduction and hypothesis-formation, for example, won't work without it.

If a conclusion is anti-commonsensical, we ought to be skeptical. Of course, when the non-sensical is supported by empirical evidence or mathematical proof (or just plain solid argumentation), then we should, in my opinion, be skeptical about our intuitions. A good example is dialetheism. The many solid arguments by very smart people for true contradictions should make some of us skeptical about our intuitions (I think this is in line with what you have argued earlier).

Robbie said...

I guess there's two defences of commonsensicalism I've got some grip of. Both I think make some quite interesting prima facie cases.

One is the semantic style of argument descended from paradigm case arguments and principles of charity. The key claim is that since the folk systematically treat p as platitudinous, we've reason to think that the meaning of "p" is such as to make it true. Obviously, there's a controversial theory of meaning in play here, but quite a few people would buy into something that gives this effect.

The appropriate, and common, response for one rejecting commonsensicalism is to give theories of what the folk mean that makes it compatible with the truth of the anticommonsensical metaphysics (cf. restricted quantifier moves by universalists about composition, or Lewis). Still, some sort of explanatory burden is being put on theorists by common sense: it's just of a rather distinctive, semantic, kind.

The other thing I've got a grip on is the "Moorean" tactic, of saying that some things are more certain than any philosophical premises that might lead one to deny them. Now, I'm skeptical that we could ever identifying a Moorean truth, thus described. But the idea that if you argue from p1-p5 to "I have no hands", then one should look to prior credences in order to figure out whether to accept the conclusion, or reject the premises, has some appeal (presumably the idea will be that we regain consistency by rejecting the proposition that we are least confident of). And it's somewhat plausible that there'll almost always be something rejectable in the premises building up to a "proof" that one has no hands, which one is less confident of antecedently than the proposition that one has hands.

Again, lots of options for resisting, even if we accept the general framework. First, it'll depend on the details of the argument involved (it's not clear in the sorites, for example, how we get out of matters without rejecting some commonsensical claim). Second, there's quite a bit of subjectivism built into this methodology: if your priors assign 1 to "I have hands" then I'm not going to be able to persuade you out of it, but if my priors are different (suppose I'm just agnostic about the issue, having read too much Calvino in my youth) then the dialectic will be very different. In short, we lose a absolute sense of why one *should* disbelieve anti-commonsensical philosophies, unless we have some normative story about why we should have priors that give a privileged position to common sense.

Anyway, I don't think either line bars the way to anticommonsensical philosophies (and I'm fond of one or two myself). But I do think that interesting issues arise, and might do the job of giving the anti-commonsensicalist some explaining to do.

Enigman said...

But overthrowing common sense where? It has surely never been common in academia, science, religion or even politics? As for elsewhere, since common sense (at best a philosophically clarified common sense) is bound to win in the end, why not just enjoy the anti-common-sensicality as a bit of light relief from the culture wars, is my attitude. On the other hand, your #10 might win out, as it seems plausible that people might revert to thinking it OK to take a natural pleasure in building children's characters in such natural ways, just out of intellectual laziness (also, what if the child is Hitler, and you have fun because he is Hitler?)!

Bryan Frances said...

My daughter is severely allergic to peanuts. This means that her body acts "irrationally" when something as innocent as a peanut enters it.

In my original post I asked what percentage of philosophers are ALLERGIC to anti-commonsensical philosophical theories. Robbie has given us a rational, intelligent, principled reason to dismiss such theories (not to imply that he endorses it). But I'm more interested in how many philosophers reject such theories not out of highly sophisticated theories but just some pre-rational yet cognitive "allergy" to such theories.

I think there are lots of these people, as I think I've met a bunch of them. Many philosophers of mind dismiss eliminative materialism not on the basis of its weak arguments but because it's nuts. Same for non-metaphysicians who think all the views currently being discussed in metaphysics can be dismissed as nuts. Even in epistemology we sometimes encounter professional epistemologists who think skepticism has no chance of being true--even when they admit that no one has been able to discover any fatal flaw in skeptical arguments.

It's that allergy that I don't respect! It seems to me that it's a pre-theoretical bias that should be abandoned unless one finds some excellent supporting argument (such as a semantics that says the extension of terms should come from platitudes, etc.).

I don't think the Moorean move works in most areas of metaphysics. I don't know of any Moorean move that can save common sense for statue-clay issues, for instance. And if Moorean moves can't save common sense in metaphysics, or the philosophy of logic and language (e.g., semantic paradoxes, vagueness), or the philosophy of physics, then why put so much weight on them in epistemology, philosophy of mind, etc?

By the way, by 'common sense' I meant beliefs that are held by nearly everyone in every culture in every historical period.

Jared Woodard said...

"by 'common sense' I meant beliefs that are held by nearly everyone in every culture in every historical period."

Kind of a high standard, isn't it?

It invalidates #12 and #19, for example, since lots of majorities of people have denied free will in one form or another throughout history: via fate, astrology, or religious ideas.

I know your targets in this post are professional philosophers, but I think it's interesting that we see the same anti-commonsense allergy in the general public, just with regard to different topics.

But I'm not sure what it means to talk about ahistorical "common sense" beliefs. And if the anti-commonsense allergy is your real target, it shouldn't matter if the allergy is relativized to whatever people happen to believe now, since a defense of a common sense belief based on allergy rather than argument is illegitimate, no matter what the content of the belief is.

Bryan Frances said...

Hi Jared!

You're right: it's a high standard. I'm okay with that, as I want to focus on philosophical theories that are VERY anti-commonsensical. That's why I wanted to appeal to beliefs that have been commonsensical in virtually every society throughout time: I want to isolate beliefs that are in some sense acquired just as part of being human and having normally functioning cognitive equipment.

And you're also right to point out that loads of people have said that we aren't free to do anything. I hadn't thought of that. I wonder if that's what they believe though. Don't ordinary people who say such things think that it's only the "big, important things in life" that are "fated" or already determined? So we are free to choose which shoe to put on first?

When I read stats like 'a clear majority of so-and-sos believe the earth is roughly 10,000 years old', I want to scream and teach epistemology and philosophy of science together and in non-standard ways.

Jared Woodard said...

Well, I'd imagine statue-clay and solid object sorts of claims probably meet the standard. But is your definition of common sense, "beliefs that have been held in virtually every society throughout time" or is it "beliefs we have just because we have working biological and cognitive equipment"? Because those might be two very different sets of beliefs. Our eyes and brains might tell us that everything is physical, for example, but it seems like physicalism has not been widely held by very many societies. So statue-clay and solid-object views wouldn't count as commonsensical on the first (consensus-based) definition, since lots of societies have held animist or other ideas about spirits inhabiting ordinary objects like trees and homo sapiens.

As far as free will goes, apparently Renaissance people really believed that star positions determined even the tiniest details of actions and events. And I think there are Calvinist versions of Christianity according to which a nonbeliever is not free to avoid any sinful action when presented with the opportunity (or if he avoids the sin, it is only because some cloud of divine grace permeates the universe, and not because he has free will).

Ultimately, it seems like the sheer variety of widely-held religious and folk ideas in history make it difficult to go with a consensus-based rather than biological approach.