Why isn’t there progress in philosophy?

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Here is part of a recent comment from Simon JM on my review of The Lustful Human Animal.

I do agree that a grounding in the basics would be helpful. But the again I’m still to come to come to terms with fundamental disagreements between equally qualified and intelligent philosophers. If they cannot get the basics philosophical questions correct what hope do the lay people have?

Simon, thanks for the comment. I think it is an important question and worth addressing in a post of its own.

I think there are two issues here 1) the issue of progress or lack thereof in philosophy and 2) the value of philosophy to non-philosophers, in light of the lack of agreement in philosophy.

I’ll try to address the first issue in the post and the second in the next post.

To the first question:

Built in to this critique of philosophy is a certain view of philosophy which we might call the science model. In the science model you make gradual progress through discovery of new facts. Success builds upon success over generations and eventually you solve all the questions. Whereas in philosophy philosophers are still arguing about the same questions they have been arguing about for thousands of years without even a millimeter of progress, or so the story goes.

The question of what philosophy is is a very substantive philosophical question in and of itself, so I’ll suggest my take on what philosophy is and why there isn’t progress in philosophy in the same way there is in science.

Philosophy is a method of applying reason to various beliefs, you might say it is thinking about thinking. A kind of second order thought process by which we examine our beliefs. Primarily this means we check our beliefs for consistency with one another. Although we would like be able which beliefs best follow from the available evidence this is generally not possible.

What I mean is we would like to know if we can prove or disprove the existence of God based on the available evidence, physical or otherwise. And many attempt to do so, however such a claim is beyond proof or disproof. But what we can do is check to see if our  belief in the existence of an all good, all loving, all powerful God is consistent with our belief that God condemns some people to eternal damnation.

In essence, philosophy doesn’t make progress because the subjects of philosophical inquiry are ultimately beyond proof. However we all have strong feelings about things like the existence of God, the soul, the afterlife, moral facts, justice, etc. So we argue about them. Disagreement on these issues only shows that they are in fact intractable. Or more precisely not the kinds of things that are open to proof or disproof, by philosophy or any other discipline.

I don’t think this is a cause for despair. What this means is that everyone has an obligation to develop their own philosophical worldview and a responsibility to check to make sure that it is consistent.

So, we might say that the goal of philosophy is not to get everyone else to agree with you but to get your own beliefs to agree with themselves, which I think is a reasonable and largely achievable goal for professional and non-professional philosophers alike.

It should be noted that some beliefs although philosophically legitimate are more strongly in conflict with science/empirical evidence than others. Consider belief in the Judeo Christian God vs. belief in young earth creationism as an example of this type of difference. So, in addition to making one’s beliefs internally consistent there is another responsibility to see that one’s beliefs also explain the empirical evidence in the best possible way, although balancing the two can be tricky. For example, one might think that the best explanation of why there exists anything at all is that there must be a God who created everything and one might think that the best explanation of the variety of life on our planet is evolution from a common ancestor. So, there are some interesting questions to sort out given those beliefs.

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