The Philosophical Method

It seems to me that philosophy is distinguished from other endeavors by the method that it adopts. This is not unusual, as science is usually identified by the scientific method. But what is the philosophical method? This question is obviously controversial but I think a good case can be made that the philosophical method involves a commitment to reason and argument as a source of knowledge.

In its earliest form it was often argued that reason could discern facts about reality that were in opposition to the way that the senses revealed reality to be. This was taken as evidence that only reason was a source of knowledge (this is rationalism). So Parmenides argued that though reality appeared as a plurality that was in constant change in actuality it was a static unity that never changed. The reason that we are supposed to adopt this radical position is that positing the reality of many changing objects leads to a contradiction (that of something coming from nothing or opposites existing in the same place at the same time).

This may make it seem as though empiricists who see philosophy as continuous with the sciences (or as I prefer, see science as natural philosophy) are not really doing philosophy anymore. They are doing science, or at least advocating that they should be doing science. But this is wrong. The empiricist is using the philosophical method because their belief in empiricism is based on reasoned argument. Hume’s arguments are just as good as any rationalists; perhaps better!

The philosophical method then involves a commitment to the following:

A good argument with the conclusion that p is a reason to believe p

What counts as a good argument (or even an argument at all) will be debated but everyone agrees that if there is a good argument with the conclusion that p then there is a reason to believe that p. This also lets us see how it is that science is a type of philosophy. The scientific method presupposes the philosophical method with the restriction that good arguments come from empirical testing of theory. So though Einstein used thought experiments to come up with relativity no one believed it until there was empirical confirmation.

Even this doesn’t preclude the rationalist from agreeing that the scientific method presupposes the philosophical method. They may hold that we have to do science because we are not omnicient. But a purely rational being that new every physical fact (i.e. the position of every fundamental unit of physics and the laws that govern them) could deduce what was possible and actual a priori.

So the identification of the philosophical method with a commitment to reason and argument as a source of knowledge (or at least justification for people to believe) seems reasonably viable.

Breaking Promises

Consider two scenrios

1. I promise to pick you up from the airport but then my mom dies and I have to leave town before you get to the airport. I feel bad that I cannot honor my obligation but I figure I’ll call before you get to the airport and explain. Hopefully you can take the subway.

2. I promise to pick you up from the airport but then Don’t Forget the Lyrics comes on and I decide to watch it. It is the season finale and though I have Tivo it is so much better to see it live. I feel bad about not honoring my obligation, but hey you can take the subway and I’ll explain later.

It seems clear that in the second scenerio I have broken a promise to you. But have I done so in the first case? It doesn’t seem that way to me. True I do not keep my promise to you, but I do not break it either; I am excused from the obligation all together. What exactly constitutes an excuse from an obligation is soemthing that we debate about a lot, but the point is that these kinds of cases do not threaten the universality of ‘it is always wrong to break your promises’. This is because in the kinds of caes that we normally describe as cases of breaking promises that morally good are really misdescribed. The promise is not being broken since one is excused from the obligation.

The very same thing happens in the case of lying. Everyone recognizes a duty to tell the truth and that lying is wrong (indeed, as I argue ‘lying is wrong’ is analytic) but we think there are some circumstances where one can be excused from this duty and so can tell a falsehood. Now what counts as a proper excuse is something that we can debate, but that there is this distinction seems undeniable. I have suggested that we opt for a bit of reformationism and reserve ‘lie’ for ‘unjustified falshood’. This way someone who tells a justified falsehood doesn’t lie (this was Knat’s position).

So what do you think? Do you think I have broken my promise to you in scenerio 1?

My Body has a Limp

Over at TAR Brian Weatherson offers an argument for thinking that the mind and body are not identical. He begins by discussing Ryle’s example of a limp and ask us to consider two sentences

5. I have a limp

6. My body has a limp

He suggests that 5 is true but 6 is false and that it is a kind of category mistake. This suggests that I am not my body (since I seem to have properties that my body doesn’t). He then goes on to say that this provides evidence for his favored view that people are events and so natually couldn’t be bodies.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that 6 will be true or false depending on whether 7 is true or false.

7. I am my body

If 7 is true then 6 will be true if 5 is. If 7 is false then 6 will be false independently of whether 5 is or not. Weatherson’s 6 is defective in the way that 8 is

8. Superman wears glasses

It sounds weird but we will ultimately admit that it is true because we accept ‘superman is Clark Kent’ and 8 follows from that and ‘Clark Kent wears glasses’. So his intuition that 6 is defective isn’t evidence that the mind and body are distinct; it is evidence that Weatherson thinks that they are.