[Note from the Editor-in-Chief: beginning with this post we will begin to implement an updated policy for commenting. The relevant bit is as follows: “The Editors at Scientia Salon do their best to keep the dialogue both civil and productive. This means that we do not hesitate to reject an unsuitable comment, either because it is offensive or because it is not understandable by a general audience, grossly incorrect, or largely off topic. Whenever that happens, the author of the comment is alerted to the fact and allowed to resubmit a modified version of it, if s/he so wishes.”]
Many define philosophy by both its subject matter and its method. The subject matter (epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, etc.) is what much of Scientia Salon attempts to bring to Main Street through essays, book reviews, and interviews. However, if the subject matter were the only thing fostered, half of what characterizes philosophy would be left out — the method. What follows attempts to foster this other half.
What is the method of philosophy?
As broadly speaking as possible, the method of (analytic) philosophy is clear argumentation and use of the tools that make an argument successful. Success, here, is the acquisition of true propositions and the rejection of false ones. Those tools that make an argument successful are critical thinking, logic, and other reasoning skills. Let’s include these all under the umbrella term of “critical thinking” for now.
What the tractor is to an agricultural farmer, critical thinking is to a philosopher. Yes, it is true that most other fields employ critical thinking as well, but many go so far as to say that philosophy is critical thinking “on crack.” Since critical thinking is the crucial pillar of philosophical practice, philosophers not only master its use, but spend time improving on what good critical thinking is. One reflection of this is perhaps the fact that Philosophy majors tend to score very high on standardized tests like the LSATs, which demand honed critical thinking skills. Such skills are on a hair-trigger for the philosopher.
In addition to the benefit philosophers find in employing critical thinking in terms of constructing good arguments, there is both pragmatic and intrinsic value in developing good critical thinking skills and clear argumentation skills. Not only can these skills be applied to almost any practical decision making problem one may encounter, refining these skills and employing them is a pleasurable activity in and of itself.
We want to make Scientia Salon the best possible forum for good quality intellectual exchange, and therefore for exercising our writers’ and readers’ critical thinking. What follows, then, is a compilation of what some bad habits of thinking and arguing that the editorial staff at SciSal has found to be common in the comment threads at the magazine. Our analysis is meant as a set of tips to keep in mind while continuing SciSal’s dialogue between the Ivory Tower and Main Street, hopefully making everyone’s experience on this site of even higher quality than it already is.
This takes place when an interlocutor operates merely at the level of factoid disputes. Often, such interlocutor seems to simply take pleasure in factually correcting another, regardless of how much (or whether) this advances discourse.
Interlocutor A: Perhaps it is the case that what we are phenomenally conscious of is more than what we have access to (can attend to and report on). Consider this argument X.
Epistemic Sadist: Science has shown that we are not phenomenally conscious of more than we can attend to. Your view is outdated.
Here, the epistemic sadist has ignored argument X and simply stated that interlocutor A is factually incorrect. He has not deployed actual critical thinking in his response to interlocutor A. Had he shown how argument X is unsound due to scientific conclusions this would be constructive, but as it stands he has not done so.
Someone is “abouting” when they hide an argument for a conclusion under the term “about,” or they use “about” ambiguously such that their conclusion either trivially follows or is false. Consider the following cases:
Hidden argument case:
Suppose my friend has unexpectedly impregnated his girlfriend and is ambivalent about staying around to support the child. I tell him: “This decision isn’t about you, it is all about the baby, so you have to stick around to support it.”
Here the implicit argument (or something like it) is that what ought to determine your decision is what action of yours will be best for the baby. Since it would be best for the baby for its father to be around, my friend ought to stick around to support it. This argument can be challenged, but it is harder to do so when it is not explicitly stated and is hidden under the term “about.”
Two people are discussing whether or not scientists are experts on topics discussed in philosophy of science. Someone says: “Science is all about philosophy of science, so scientists are obviously experts on the subject.”
If “science is all about philosophy of science” means that scientists are practicing the methods that philosophers of science are questioning the purpose of (do the methods get at the way the world is or simply predictive success?), then it is trivially true, but it does not warrant the conclusion that scientists are experts on the philosophy of science.
If “science is all about philosophy of science” means that scientists are frequently thinking about, and publishing papers on, whether or not scientific methods can tell us something concerning the way the world is vs. mere predictive success, then the claim that “science is about philosophy of science” is clearly false, and does not warrant the conclusion that scientists are experts on the philosophy of science.
This is a term taken from Daniel Dennett’s Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. Someone is “rathering” when they claim, “it’s not the case that X. Rather, Y is true.”
Here, one has made it look as though they have made an argument for Y, but really they have not. Additionally, they may have committed a false dichotomy — it could be that case that both Y and X are true.
“The problem of free will is not a metaphysical problem about whether or not free will exists. Rather, it is a semantic problem about what we mean by the term free will.”
Here, we see “rathering” because there has been no argument for the claim that the problem of free will is merely a semantic problem. We have only seen two assertions: that there is no metaphysical problem of free will, and that there is only a semantic problem of free will. Additionally, it could be the case that there is both a metaphysical problem of free will and a semantic problem of free will. So, it is possible that a false dichotomy has been created.
Humpty Dumpty semantics
This is when somebody decides to redefine a term arbitrarily, thereby neglecting the reasons we employ certain terms to begin with: to make useful conceptual distinctions, or reflect the way we use language for practical purposes. This can either be by broadening a definition, or by changing a definition completely.
Example 1: Making useful conceptual distinctions
Just as one billiard ball causes another billiard ball to move when one strikes the other, so too 1+1 “causes” 2 when the axioms of the mathematical system in question make this the case.
Sometimes we use our terms to help us make useful conceptual distinctions. Regarding this example, we think that the physical relation of causality that obtains is different from the “causal” relation between mathematical statements. For example, that one physical event causes another is a contingent truth in the world (something that didn’t logically have to obtain, but it just so happens that in our world it did), whereas 1+1 “causes” 2 is a necessary truth (something that is true in all possible worlds, that we couldn’t imagine being false), one that follows deductively from a set of axioms. Broadening definitions arbitrarily doesn’t respect one of the reasons we use terms: to make useful conceptual distinctions. Additionally, it would fail to make clear what the obvious differences are between the two senses of “causality.”
Example 2: Reflecting the way we talk for practical purposes
“Science is anything that employs observation, reasoning, and critical thinking to draw conclusions.”
Sometimes we have practical reasons for defining terms the way we do. One can choose to define “science” in this broad way, but it wouldn’t reflect the way that the term is ordinarily used (to pick out an enterprise that performs systematic observations or well-controlled experiments and publishes results in scientific journals). Additionally, it would be pragmatically harmful to define “science” this way, as it would collapse the distinction between pseudoscience and science, which are things we want to distinguish for practical purposes: to advise against employing one vs. the other.
Dan Tippens is Assistant Editor at Scientia Salon. He received his Bachelors of Arts in Philosophy at New York University. He is now a research technician at New York University School of Medicine in the S. Arthur Localio Laboratory.