The trouble with philosophy

by Neil Rickert

I’ve been clear that I look at things differently from the way many philosophers do.  In this post I’ll try to say something about that difference.

In my experience, if you say something critical of philosophy, then philosophers will come out of the woodwork to defend their discipline.  I want to be clear that I am not attacking philosophy.  Rather, I am explaining what I find unsatisfying about it.

I often see some sort of criticism of philosophy coming from scientists.  I do not claim to speak for all scientists, but perhaps what I find unsatisfying will at least hint at what some other critics don’t like.

The trouble with philosophy

is that philosophers do it so badly.  I don’t know of a good definition of “philosophy”, and I suppose that if we take “philosophy” to mean “that which philosophers do,” then it is pretty much impossible for them to do it badly.  However, I take philosophy to be dealing with a range of topics that are related to thought, reasoning, being human.  And it is in that sense that I find philosophy unsatisfying.  It seems too much driven by tradition, and it seems to avoid what I see as important.

When I say that philosophers do it badly, I am not saying that they are wrong.  It is not up to me to tell philosophers what to do or how to do it.  Rather, I am saying that they seem to miss what I find important, and spend a lot of effort on what I see as pointless.

Syntax vs. Semantics

The big difference seems to be on how we look at questions related to the human mind.  In particular, many philosophers seem to think of the brain as something like a syntactic engine, whereas I think of it as something like a semantic engine.

As an example of this, take logic.  With logic, we reach conclusions based on the form of the argument, rather than on its content:

  • All fraggles are calgos;
  • John is a fraggle;
  • Therefore John is a calgo.

We do not need to know the meaning of “fraggle” or “calgo” to follow this argument.  The conclusion is determined by the form of the argument, rather than by what it means.  This dependence on form is what I describing as syntactic, while an argument based on the meanings could be referred to as semantic.  I don’t doubt that I am misusing both “syntactic” and “semantic” here, but they are near enough that they seem to be words that I can use in this discussion.

It seems to be a widespread view within academic philosophy, that the study of logic is the study of human reason.  I am skeptical of that.  I see logic as merely a useful tool, but not as the main principle of human thought.  I suspect that many mathematicians have a similarly limited view of logic.

George Boole called his logic book “The Laws of Thought” (short title).  By contrast, I see thought as free ranging and not at all law governed.  It has always seemed to me that our thoughts are concerned with content, rather than with how we might represent that content with syntactic structures.

Many, but not all philosophers take the view that the brain is some sort of computer.  They hold the view known as computationalism which is roughly summarized by the slogan “cognition is computation.”  I have expressed skepticism of that view, which to me seems quite implausible.  But that, of course, is because I see the brain as a semantic engine rather than as a syntactic engine.

I can illustrate the issue with the Chalmers hard problem, the problem of explaining perceptual experience.  If what the brain does is syntactic, mechanical rule following, then it is very difficult to understand how perceptual experience is possible.  On the other hand, if what the brain does is semantic, then it would seem that perceptual experience should be inevitable for the experience pretty much is the semantic content of perception.

I shall probably have some future posts related to the question of syntax versus semantics, and perhaps some posts toward the idea of a philosophy based on semantics.

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