June 13, 2011

Speaking of Folk Language vs. Empirical Science...

Alice Dreger mentions a handful of challenges to the macroscopic, anatomical distinctions that we assume in our natural languages. One challenging implication of her talk is that we could end up eliminating much more law (which, like philosophy does, operationalizes on our natural language's presumptions, often distinguishes by "intuition," and makes an ad hoc legitimization of its own previous stances and practices) than we would expect and than many people are comfortable pursuing.

June 10, 2011

Arguing the Inferiority of Philosophical Methods to the Methods of Empirical Science to Philosophers

It obviously meets some resistance from people who identify themselves as professional philosophers, but I managed to spin a sausage metaphor into an issue about the efficacy of philosophers' methods to arrive at empirically relevant claims.
"I took it to be a reference to a principle you clearly do accept, according to which if a subject S is immune to empirical study, then it is not possible to know claims involving S, nor to fruitfully study S."
-- Mr. Zero (of The Philosophy Smoker)
Actually, my claim is more along these lines: If you claim that any statement S is immune to empirical verification, then it is no more likely to report true, falsifiable statements than random guessing would (because soundness and consistency are indistinguishable in such models), and thus is not a fruitful study.

The issue is the disconnect between using and coining words to describe the world and using words, alone, to “explain” the world. “Happiness,” or “goodness,” for instance, may be total misnomers under empirical scrutiny and may only be meaningful as an array of stimuli responses that people would call “being happy.” However, there is no reason to appeal to the natural language, which we can revise or contrive to fit more specific empirical results. The specificities of Alexander Shulgin, for instance, would have more interesting and empirically testable things to say on happiness and he didn't get them by considering the philosophical history from the Aristotelian age to the present.

My bulk criticism is actually an empirical problem. It comes from my actual dealings with hippies (“Daoists,” “Ayurvedics,” “polarity therapists,” and tons of other people who I met in the lot of “alternative medicine” while I was studying manual therapy) and other philosophers. I learned that my disgust was similar to an observation from scientist and Sinological historian Joseph Needham, who evinced that empirical sciences failed to come to fruition in the East (and were similarly stifled in the West) because their approach was to force empirical results to conform to purely linguistic contrivances. That's a square-peg-to-round-hole problem. The less intellectually impeding thing to do is to conform our language to the demonstrated results, and then to have a means of factual dispute from there. This is the kind of progress that moves us from phlogiston-talk to oxidation-talk, from four-humors-talk to bacterial-and-viral-talk (in China, for instance, it was “五行說”). It doesn't come from philosophers.

Philosophers are a strange bunch in that they can coin terms on a whim so long as they are “philosophically interesting” or “bug our intuitions” about things, while they consider a sufficiently common term in our lexicon (however remotely, e.g. be, have, good, know, think, believe, make/cause), and thus they appear quite relevant to laymen. Conversely, they could be straightforwardly demonstrating via their own method of coinage, self-imported distinction, and argument, that philosophical criticism, itself, is critiquing the inadequacy of its own methodology. This is why I suspect that there can be so many more rival schools of philosophy than there can be of most empirical science camps.
"It seemed to me that [Anonymous] 6:11 was pointing out that this principle is itself immune to empirical study, and so is self-refuting in the manner of the verification principle."
-- Mr. Zero (of The Philosophy Smoker)
I think that philosophers can be empirically scrutinized. I think that empirical method can explain their methods of making themselves seem like they're doing relevant discourse on abstract topics, and I think that such studies would confirm many of the criticisms that I've made here.

Now, you may think that my claim on S above is not empirically verifiable, but I think the empirical test for such a statement seems pretty straightforward.

This was a final post to a couple of responders at the end. They probably will still think that I'm deeply misled about my dependence on non-empirical principles, and I'll probably still think that they're deeply misled about their dependence on empirical grounds to make those "non-empirical" principles into relevant claims to fact.

Nevertheless, a pretty good example that predicts the sort of empiricist takeover of philosophical questions is in a 2005 MIT talk with the aforementioned Alexander Shulgin, Christof Koch, and Patricia Churchland. You can view the entire video on MIT's web site, or you can view it part by part below. And yes, I know that Churchland is a professional philosopher, but what she says might pin many philosophers' ears back.