Are Philosophers Experts?

Reflections on my recent adventure (see the comments) in the atheosphere--

Let's say I read some biologist affirming that there's such a thing as group selection--a tricky, subtle concept I don't understand really well. Group selection may not make much sense to me, but in Socratic fashion, I know what I don't know. I know there's a big debate in biology about group selection, with well regarded people on both sides, but I don't know all the arguments and positions. I haven't read the literature on this. It's all rather technical. I might not even be able to digest it if I tried. So a hunch about it, OK, I might even have a tentative view. A definitive view, no.  Dismiss other people's views out of hand? Certainly not.  I definitely wouldn't dismiss the biologist as a clown.

Now let's transpose. Andrew Pessin started his recent HuffPo post by recognizing the paradox of the preface (more here). To some people, the paradox seems preposterous.  Some say with total confidence that there's no paradox at all. To argue for this, in effect they try to solve the paradox. But wait, there are dozens of solutions in the literature, and objections to extant solutions! Without reading them, they nevertheless confidently espouse their own solutions. They also confidently trounce other solutions. Why read the literature? they say. There's no paradox! Or: why should I listen to philosophers if I don't listen to theologians? (To be clear--this is a composite of things said by several people in that comment thread.)

What I have learned: philosophers don't have the stature of biologists (gulp!). The assumption is that you can weigh in on philosophical issues without first studying what philosophers have said about them, in a way you obviously can't weigh in on biological controversies without first studying what biologists have said about them.

That perception really surprises me.  I do regard philosophers (the good ones) as experts--not so much on "the truth" but on the contours of problems.  It's not immediately obvious there's any problem of free will (for example), but the fact that philosophers see it as a problem is evidence that there's a problem. If you don't get it, listen up!  Read more!  If you quickly think you've got the solution, the fact that philosophers debate this endlessly, and there are lots of competing views, is evidence that it's not as simple as you think.  Ditto: the paradox of the preface.

Why should you give the views of philosophers that sort of weight?  Good question.  I have an insider's reasons for doing so.  How does an outsider recognize which groups should be credited with expertise  and what they're experts about?   I shall not have more than a few hunches before I spend some time reading the literature on social epistemology.


s. wallerstein said...

Agreed that the experts know more, but when you put a question in a blog, it's an invitation for all of us to put in our two cents or our one cent. You can't (I think) have it both ways: be experts and open the discussion to all comers. When you publish an entry in a blog, you're asking the masses what we think, you're implicitly saying that the opinion of the masses has as much weight as those of people with degrees in philosophy. Letier, for example, often only accepts entries from other philosophers who have to sign with their full name: that is, he excludes lay people from the conversation. Both approaches are worthwhile, but obviously will yield different results.

Faust said...

Reading some literature on string theory (popular science stuff) I have run across the comment (paraphrase): "but because string theory is so hard to test, some scientists say that string theory is little better than philosophy."

When philosophy is described in this way, it is being classed as a discipline that is not grounded in reality in the same way that science is. One reason that experimental philosophy is likely growing. More street cred in an evidence focused world.

But lets us assume for the moment that the armchair philosopher still has something to contribute. How might this work?

Let us take the paradox of the preface. Say that it occupies a logical space, like a chess board. It assumes certain rules (the words and definitions that make up the argument/paradox) and once you know those rules, you can start to play the game. Unlike chess, one of the rules is: we are still making up the rules, but there will be limits on how far you can stretch a given word before it breaks (I'm thinking here of words like "true," "belief," "certain," and so on).

The literature around the paradox is then like a book of chess openings. There are only so many available. There is Queen's Gambit, with it's variations and so on. Certainly someone can sit down and start writing this book all over again, a chess neophyte can start cataloging every move they might make, but it would be unlikely that they are making any advances on the literature.

Viewed in this way, philosophy (or at least a large part of it) is like the body of literature that covers all the moves that can be made in a particular logical space. Why be dismissive of people that have spent a large amount of time hanging out in that space? But like chess anyone can start playing the game, so there is quite a bit of "well I can just move my pawn over here," and the reasons that this is not a good idea might require quite a few moves before the problems with that opening are revealed.

If one accepts all the preceding as a useful metaphor there is still one final problem: is philosophy just a game? Enter anti-sophistry.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, What I'm complaining about is gross over-certainty.
As to my own blogging-- When I talk about anything technical (which is not often), I'm certainly not inviting anyone to go beyond the level of confidence they're entitled to, given what they've read and how long they've thought about the issues.

Faust, My respect for philosophy is greater than that (surprise, surprise). I don't think it's just a game. I think it really does take some education in philosophy to even be able to appreciate real problems as real problems, and to see the difficulty of coming up with a good solution.

Faust said...

So no Wittgensteinian language games for you?

I jest. I never pegged you for someone who thinks philosophy is a game. As a staunch realist that's not going to wash. I'm just saying that a lot of people from science land seem to think of philosophy that way (as when string theory is described as "little better than philosophy").

And then, a lot of philosophers are happy to agree with this...and still think that philosophy has something to offer: i.e. a way to help us all play our games a bit better.

Have you read "The Philosopher as Expert" by Rorty?

s. wallerstein said...

The problem seems to be that philosophy ranges from cogent moral arguments like those of Peter Singer to the recent discussions about paradoxes, which in my non-expert opinion are a bit like playing chess. It would be difficult to claim that philosophy as practiced by Singer (or by Nussbaum or by Nietzsche or by Plato) is a game. By the way, insofar as philosophy takes a distance from its game-like aspects and talks about life problems that all people (or all thoughtful people) deal with (what is good, the meaning of life, does God exist, etc.), lay people seem to have more space to put in their two cents, if only
because many lay people, without technical training, in their own way, reflect a lot about what is good, etc.

Jean Kazez said...

The thing is, my education in philosophy is actually primarily in the technical areas--philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, which I studied at (this sounds like bragging--sorry) great places with great people. I entirely respect that stuff and don't think it's a game, even though at the moment I'm doing something completely different.

Ed said...

For many of us it's not clear where the line between "philosophy" as it is used in everyday life ends and "philosophy" as a rigorous academic discipline begins. This confusion does not exist in biology.

Like most people I have what I consider to be my personal philosophy of life which I employ to tackle many of the decisions I encounter. This seems to be reasonable and even a requirement for any thinking person. There is a large area of overlap between my personal philosophy and many of the questions that academic philosophy also addresses, which leads me to believe I am qualified to comment on many philosophical issues that perhaps I lack the expertise to address.

However, I do not have a personal set of biological principles that I have worked out largely for myself and which I use to guide some of my decisions. Biology is a field that exists solely as an expert discipline. So there is less confusion about whether or not I am qualified to comment on biological questions.

Faust said...

I like Ed's comment.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, the spectrum of what counts as philosophy is broader, so it's less obvious where expertise comes in, but I think the subject of paradoxes is well over the line. It's a technical area of the field, as even a quick look at the literature makes obvious.

There's also a spectrum in biology, from the elementary to the advanced. You can say "evolution, not creation" and explain why without being too cautious about it. I picked "group selection" because it really is a subtle, technical, hotly debated topic in biology.

Paradoxes are clearly in the "expert" zone within philosophy, just as "group selection" is within biology.

Wayne said...

I think that philosophers are considered experts in the same way that atheletes are considered "experts" in their competition. When a biologist says, "xyz" the average person isn't going to engage in science to determine if s/he is correct. They just don't know how to, or if they do, they botch it up completely (see global warming and evolution as examples). So they accept the claim based on the authority of the source.

But with an athelete, and with philosophy I think, the activity in question is something that the average joe can do... they just can't do it as well as the professional. They'll botch an argument, ignore fallacies, etc. the average joe has played basketball, so they want to try to play with the pro. Similarly, the average joe has thought about some of these things, and wants to try arguing the pro.

The difference between the athelete and the philospher, is that in the sport, there is a clear winner. In philosophy, the average joe can walk away thinking that they have clearly "won" the argument, when they are completely mistaken. So their "expert" status is further trivialized. Add to it a heavy dose of relativism, (I can't tell you how often my students insist that the existence of God is relative, that is he exists for some, but not for others) and you have a populace that doesn't recognize the expertise of the philosopher.

s. wallerstein said...

Maybe the difference between lawyers and juries is in some senses comparable to that between philosophers and average Joes.
Lawyers (and philosophers)are a lot better at thinking up arguments and justifications for their positions than lay people are, but I'm not at all sure that
their conclusions are necessarily more reasonable, more sensible or even wiser.

Wayne said...

amos- I'd have to disagree with you on that pint. No doubt there would be the chance that people stumble upon the "correct" or "better" answer by accident, or because the answer is rather easy one. But given a difficult judgment, I'd say that a philosopher would more likely make a better judgment than the average joe.

The average joe just doesn't spend much time thinking about the issue, philosophers, with more experience thinking about difficult judgments, less likely to fall into mental errors, would produce more often the better result, just like a mathematician would be less likely to make a mistake when it comes to difficult math problems than the average joe.

If wisdom is the ability to give good counsel like Plato suggest, then I would agree, that philosophers may not be any more wise than the average joe.... But... The philosopher might have more knowledge than the average joe, because we can justify our positions better than the average joe.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne--I'm with you on this and like the sports analogy. Sorry to be so brief-- I'm busy with a billion things.

s. wallerstein said...

Two kinds of problems are being confused here, technical philosophical problems, such as the paradox one, and life problems. In the first case, the average Joe or the above average Joe has spent zero time considering the issue and should (reminder to myself) keep his mouth shut. Regarding life problems, for example, those posed by Mr. Benatar, rather than accept Benatar's impeccably reasoned conclusions, I'd prefer to ask a jury of average Joes or of above average Joes. Wayne, from what I can see, there are lots of sophists in the philosophy business just as in the attorney business, guys or gals who are good at justifying whatever they want to justify with rational arguments. I've read the most improbably arguments for the existence of God (thousands of varieties of the ontological argument, for example) from proficient analytical philosophers, and as someone said about the ontological argument, while it's difficult to show what exactly is wrong with it, anyone with common sense can see that there is something fishy. Then there are the online Stoics with their reason is virtue is happiness equation: some of them are quite proficient at arguing, but the idea that reason is virtue is happiness just doesn't chime with the everyday experience of a jury of average Joes. So I'll stick with my analogy of philosophers as lawyers and average Joes as the jury.

Wayne said...

amos- okay lets run with your example a bit. The average joe knows something is fishy about the ontological argument. Philosophers think so too. But the average joes and the philosophes' intuitions about the "fishiness" might be simply wrong. The average joe looks at a young black man and thinks, "dangerous."

But philosophers can come back from this reliance on intuition and say, "This isn't just an intuition, our intuitions are correct because.... existence is not a predicate." Now 'existence is not a predicate' is certainly not intuitive. Ask an average joe what their intuitions about that is, and they would be without one.

What I don't like about the lawyer analogy is that it gives the impression that one of the lawyers necessarily is arguing against the truth (thats why we don't like lawyers or sophists). We may have diametrically opposed philosophers, but everyone is trying to investigate the truth. Unfortunately, philosophical truths are a little more difficult to prove conclusively than say whether photosynthesis occurs in a plant or not.

....rotten blood sucking lawyers. ;) j/k

Faust said...

One of the problems here is that of relevance to the concerns of the "average joe."

For example one could develop highly technical expertise about the concept of substance in medieval philosophy, but no one outside of a tiny group of scholars on the subject is likely to find the insights of the experts useful to modern life.

Expertise about "making arguments," which is what Wayne is focusing on, seems much more broadly applicable, in that everyone is running around "justifying" and "making arguments" in support of various positions. So in this case philosophers would have a broadly applicable expertise: they could comment on any argument being made about virtually any subject.

We see this in the case of the recent controversial attempt by Fodor to critique Darwinian theory in "What Darwin got Wrong." Fodor says: I'm a philosopher and I'm making an argument about the problems with Darwin's argument." The biologists respond: "Your argument is not addressing the field properly, you're not an expert, you haven't fit enough facts into your analysis etc." [Jean's complaint is: can't philosophers do exactly the same thing when the biologists tred on philosophical territory? Answer: they do.]

So here is one way to frame the difficulty: the more philosophers stick to "a priori" arguments they can be premier experts (short hand this as "logic"). But when they take this "expertise in argumentation" and apply it to a "real world" problem like biology or cognition, then they are going to need to start collecting lots of evidence: the armchair is no longer going to suffice.

So too when the philosopher councils the "average Joe." The average Joe typically doesn't want to be "right." They just want what they want. So the philosopher can offer them lots of tools to better argue for their desires, but will be unlikely to settle them once and for all (philosophers seem unable to do this among themselves, so it's hard to see how they are going to do this for anyone else).

Philosophers as carpenters: they can't tell you what kind of house to build, but once you decide, they can help you make it better (more internally consistent).

s. wallerstein said...

Wayne: I suspect that you're idealizing real flesh and blood philosophers when you say that they are only interested in investigating the truth: I imagine that some are trying to defend positions that deep in their hearts they suspect are not true, others are trying to demonstrate how brilliant they are, others are trying to get tenure, others are directly in the pay of one or another interest group, for example, the Templeton Foundation, not to mention name philosophers who wrote for CIA financed publications during the Cold War or for their Soviet equivalent (Lukacs, for example). Take a look at this debate:
Andy Walsh certainly has brilliant arguments, much better than any I can think of, but does he really think that he makes a case for the existence of God? I suspect not, and I suspect that Andy, like any good lawyer uses all the arguments, sophistic or not, which further his cause, the existence of God.

I realize that we Average Joes are very fallible, and that is the reason that juries consist of twelve people, not one, the idea being the good sense of the other eleven can balance the lack of good sense of any one member. The trained philosopher provides the arguments and submits them to the jury of good sense. Even in countries like Chile, which has no jury system, decisions in the higher courts are made by a body of judges, not by one judge. A jury of philosophers would undoubtedly counterbalance the vices of any one philosopher acting as lawyer. Finally, Wayne, I don't mean to reflect on your personal philosophical vocation, which may involve a total dedication to truth.

Jean Kazez said...

The average Joe has no education in philosophy, a difficult time getting a grip on philosophical ideas, not great critical thinking or logic skills, and lots of susceptibility to superstition and nonsense (the majority of Americans believe in angels, around half don't believe in evolution, etc). So...I should let a jury of average Joes be the judge of my work in philosophy? I don't think so!

It would be another thing to say that philosophers should maintain a good mesh between their theories and common intuitions, especially when the topic is something to do with real life. Even that's rather controversial, as it's not at all clear which intuitions ought to be regarded as sacrosanct, or why they should be.

s. wallerstein said...

The average average Joe hasn't the least interest in philosophy or in reading anything more complex than a menu in MacDonalds and thus, isn't likely to want to judge your work. However, there is another average Joe, the average literate Joe, who reads the articles that Peter Singer from time to time writes in the New York Times, and who might well be able to offer a few words of good sense or worldly wisdom to professional philosophers.

Ophelia Benson said...

But this particular dispute doesn't seem like a good example, for the simple reason that Pessin's article was published at the Huffington Post. It was written for a general audience, so a general audience gets to say what doesn't (to the g.a.) make sense, hang together, etc.

What I objected to was the specific word "certain" and the unmarked move from that to "believe" later on. Does one have to have a PhD (or even a BA) in philosophy to argue that the two words refer to different things, on the grounds that Pessin has a PhD in philosophy therefore no one without one can possibly understand the way he used the words in an article on the Huffington Post?

A couple of people did make some very sweeping (and silly, and rude) dismissals of philosophy in comments on Jerry's blog, but I protested that.

michael reidy said...

I hadn't heard of the preface paradox until Jean brought it up and the discussion on B&W was generally informative. Modest proposal: paradoxoi tell us that how we think is not always adequate to the way things are and that they have their power through being a felt disjunction. It's just that which makes the regular punter recoil and say that's nonsense and not informative about anything. How about Moore's paradox: "It's raining, but I don't believe it".