The problem with philosophy

by Neil Rickert

The problem with philosophy, is its excessive obsession with logic.  I was reminded of this when reading a blog post by Massimo Pigliucci:

Massimo is actually discussing the urge to study meta-ethics, as providing a logical foundation for ethics.  And he explains why he is resisting that urge.

That’s good.  I never had such an urge myself, perhaps because I don’t see logic the same way that philosophers do.  The idea of a logical foundation for ethics seems to me to be a hopeless non-starter.

Massimo goes on to discusses other places where philosophers apparently have that foundationalist urge.  His first example is induction:

Take science, for instance. Ever since Hume formulated his famous problem of induction — and despite much philosophical literature concerning it — we have known that we do not have a logical foundation for inductive reasoning. If that doesn’t bother you, it should. Induction, in its varied forms, is the basis of both commonsensical and scientific reasoning. So if we have no logical justification for induction it means we have no logical justification for pretty much any of our empirical knowledge, all scientific knowledge included! Oops.

Well, no, I do not have that foundationalist urge either.  I am not at all bothered that we do not have a logical foundation for inductive reasoning.  If anything, I am quite skeptical that science depends on induction in the way that philosophers say that it does.  I see that as another example of an excessive emphasis being placed on logic and on propositions (as the objects to which logic applies).

Next, Massimo moves on to mathematics:

Or consider an even more disturbing case: mathematics. Up until the early part of the 20th century people thought that it would be possible to establish mathematical knowledge on an entirely logically tight foundation. Russell and Whitehead famously made the most valiant attempt in that direction, resulting in their colossal Principia Mathematica, a book that many like to cite, but very few have ever read (including yours truly, though I did at least start it, once!). That entire intellectual project was smashed into pieces by Gödel’s famous incompleteness theorems, and that was the end of that. But it wasn’t the end of mathematics, was it? It’s not like people stopped doing it because they thought “oh my god! We can’t find a complete logical foundation for mathematics! It must all be rubbish!”

My view of mathematics is rather different.  Many philosophers seem to want to view mathematics as a branch of logic.  Most of the mathematicians that I have known, instead view logic as a branch of mathematics.  And, indeed, they probably see logic as a relatively minor branch of mathematics.  Or, at the least, that is how I see it.  So most mathematicians are not at all troubled by Gödel’s incompleteness theorems.

Massimo then points out that there is no logical foundation for logic itself.

I’ll credit Massimo for recognizing that you cannot have logical foundations for everything.

Another web post (actually a web article, in 3AM magazine) that I noticed today was by Alex Rosenberg:

Rosenberg was addressing a different question, that of the status of the humanities.  I agree with much of what he wrote.  However, when writing about philosophy and philosophy faculty, his article includes this statement:

Senior faculty still value and often teach “baby” logic, the foundation of all reasoning in the humanities as well as science.

Well, no, logic is not the foundation of all reasoning.  Human perception, not logic, is the basis for reasoning.  Roughly speaking, we reason by building mental models, and then evaluating those models with our perception, perhaps in the form of proprioception or internal perception.

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