FOM: a modest defense of philosophy
rmarcus at gc.cuny.edu
Mon Jan 10 16:26:43 EST 2000
I am truly confused by Mycielsky's recent anti-philosopher screed. Blaming
Russell and Wittgenstein for the sins of the post-modernists is quite a
stretch. There is much wrong with philosophy, but not this. In fact, both
Russell and (the early) Wittgenstein contributed to a project of unifying
science with philosophy in a context dominated by mathematical rigor.
Ryle's criticisms of Cartesian dualism are exactly the result of an emergent
science, though a 'soft' one: behavioral psychology; Ryle's problems were
those of a scientist engaged in a failed project, not those of an
anti-scientist. The assertion that Armstrong's materialism is somehow
anti-scientific seems equally errant; the obvious heirs to that project are,
if anything, too scientific. (I speak of the San Diego Eliminatavists.)
I might clarify what 'rationalism' means to a philosopher, in contrast to
Mycielsky: it's the epistemological position that asserts that one can
attain knowledge in a manner logically independent from experience. It is a
position widely rejected today by most American philosophers, I would say.
They are (perhaps overly) enamored with natural science! Criticisms of
rationalism often focus on its claim to extra-sensory conduits of knowledge,
like intuition, whereas the anti-rationalists (often 'naturalists') seek to
account for all knowledge, scientific, mathematical, and logical, without
positing any method of learning beyond the five senses.
Compare Mycielsky's reliance on intuition and popular vote (as support for
confidence in ZFC for example) with those of a pre-Einsteinian defender of
Euclidean geometry as the appropriate model for space.
Though Mycielsky seems to defend proof in an axiomatic systems as the unique
conduit to knowledge, one important result of Godel's work (i.e. the
incompleteness theorems) is that mathematical truth can not be equated with
proof within a single such system. This begs many compelling questions
about foundations of mathematics and truth, which aren't all solved by
appeal to blind pursuit of mathematical proof.
One job of the philosopher is to perform conceptual clarification. This
often entails naming competing philosophical positions, and showing how they
oppose each other. Far from belittling scientific achievement, this serves
to understand it. I might point out that questions of the
inter-relationships between different sciences, reductionism, and
unification are among the most vibrant topics in contemporary philosophy.
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