Sunday, October 5, 2014

What crazy idea in philosophy do you think should be taken more seriously?

Kyle Swan: Open borders

People widely regard open borders as, not just crazy, but an insidious, masochistic attempt to bring down America.

But economists estimate that international barriers to labor mobility waste about an entire earth’s GDP, about $75 trillion, every year. This is mostly due to labor’s place premium: grab, say, a Cambodian construction worker, plop him down in the US, and his earning potential increases 8 times. No one thinks that implementing an open borders regime would be entirely smooth and seamless, but it seems like $75 trillion could offset a bunch of potential problems and disruptions.

Notice also that permitting labor mobility isn’t charity. It isn’t charity to stop preventing people from trying to improve their lives. Not being cruel to others is the least we expect from each other. It isn’t our fault that Cambodians are very, very poor. But it is our fault that we keep them poor by preventing people from offering them jobs that pay 8 times better than ones they have.

This is the point of Michael Huemer’s (Colorado) Starvin’ Marvin thought experiment. Many think that it’s morally worse to harm than to fail to confer a benefit. Even if that’s right, it’s obvious that closing borders is an instance of the former rather than the latter.

It was really, really bad when US law permitted employers to discriminate against women and minorities. But these days US law requires employers to discriminate against people with the bad luck to have been born in poor countries.

Patrick Smith:  There are no ordinary objects

Here’s a properly insane idea: there are no ordinary objects. No rocks, no trees, no books, no Buicks. How on earth could we think this? The notion that there are no ordinary objects that constitute much of our perceptual experience seems to be the result of extreme delusion. But how insane of an idea is it?
Let’s consider three propositions:
(1) There is at least one book here. 
(2) If something is an object (like a book), then it is composed of a finite number of atoms (but many, many of them). 
(3) If something is an object like a book (composed of a finite number of atoms, but many, many of them), then removing one or two atoms will not change the fact that there is at least one book here.
This is an example of an inconsistent triad: three propositions that lead to an inconsistency if we accept all as true. If (3) is true, and you apply (3) over and over, you end up having to say that there are no atoms in the situation and there is also a book. Since this is absurd, something has to give.

Now, (2) looks like science and (3) looks obvious, right? So, to preserve consistency, (1) has
to go. And books are the same sort of thing as rocks, trees, and Buicks. So, there are no ordinary objects.

Brad Dowden:  You can be of two minds

Not figuratively. Literally. And be in two places at once. A crazy idea.

This crazy idea needs to be taken more seriously because it is implied by rejecting the idea that you are an Ego Object thinking inside your brain. That classical “you” is an illusion. The new you is not some brain add-on, as if otherwise you would be a philosophical zombie.

To appreciate the implication, imagine that Derek Parfit invents a teleportation machine in his ontology laboratory. You step into his machine in Oxford, where the machine creates an atom by atom blueprint of your body, then sends this information by radio to Paris. A physical copy is created ten minutes later in the Paris machine using Paris atoms. Meanwhile only a pile of dust leaves the Oxford machine. You now exist in Paris.

But the same information that is sent to Paris is sent to a St. Petersburg machine. Two yous are created in these two machines simultaneously. The two yous start having different thoughts, and soon are no longer identical, but they’d be you. At the moment of creation, you begin being of two minds and being in two places at once. This is double survival after annihilation, not no survival. From the first-person perspective, they’d both know they are you in just the way that you can know that you are you after a night’s sleep without yet opening your eyes and looking into the mirror.

Emrys Westacott: The goal of philosophy is not truth

The pursuit of truth is the form that philosophical activity takes, but truth is not its end or purpose.

We assume that the goal of philosophy is truth because Plato said so, because science pursues truth and we’d like to be respected the way scientists are, and because the Truth is generally assumed to be a good thing–it hangs out with the Good and the Beautiful, “sets you free”, etc.

But the real purpose and value of philosophy is to be a medium through which a culture reflects upon itself. It shares this function with literature, film, and the other arts, as well as the social sciences. Methods vary between and within disciplines, but each discipline contributes to an endless, ongoing conversation about matters concerning humanity: how we conceive of ourselves and our activities, how we relate to nature, how we relate to each other, as well as normative variations on these questions. The great conversation may sometimes produce beneficial practical consequences, but its primary value is that it is enjoyable in itself and deepens the reflective dimension of human existence.

This view of philosophy should be taken more seriously because it might help assuage the anxiety philosophers feel over the fact that they aren’t scientists making well-defined contributions to the store of human knowledge. It’s crazy because even in the act of advancing it one seems to be announcing the discovery of an important truth.

Randy Mayes: False knowledge

The traditional analysis of knowledge as justified, true belief had a great run, but it lost its mojo in the late 20th century. No widely accepted analysis has emerged to take its place. Today there is much skepticism concerning the justification condition, and some concerning the belief condition. Few philosophers, however, dispute the truth condition. "Jane knows X, and X is false" is widely condemned as crazy talk.

There is a familiar sense of the term knowledge, regarding which such statements are incoherent. However, the familiar sense of a term is not of singular interest in philosophical inquiry. Human understanding of the world grows because we permit familiar meanings to change. One important mechanism of conceptual change is naturalization, which typically occurs in the service of scientific inquiry. Roughly, we appropriate a term whose ordinary meaning is informed by our sense of how the world ought to be, and tweak it to be useful in understanding how the world is.

Today, in disciplines like information science and artificial intelligence, researchers study knowledge as a natural phenomenon, not a normative concept. They seek to explain how knowledge is acquired, preserved, transmitted and consumed. From this perspective, it is unwise to stipulate that all knowledge is true because it is an open empirical question whether the presence or absence of truth has explanatory value. Knowledge, is, roughly, usable information. Some of it may be true, much of it clearly is not. Philosophers are crazy not to take this concept of knowledge seriously.

Scott Merlino: Supernaturals are superfluous

Descriptions and explanations do not need actual supernaturals to make sense out of what we observe, feel, think, do or say. This is a rational reason for not believing that angels, demons, faeries, ghost, gods, vampires, werewolves, witches, or zombies exist. Doing philosophy (logic, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics) demonstrates this. Have you got a proof that shows that God is necessary? Well, Norman Malcolm (1960) has an ontological argument that shows the opposite.

What makes this a crazy idea is that most people believe in supernaturals (Harris Poll, 2013). Supernaturals are non-physical, non-mental, non-sensible agents that are unconstrained by spacetime or natural laws. Angels visit, ghosts haunt, devils make us sin, gods make and destroy worlds.

We should take this view more seriously because it blinds us to fundamental incompatibilities between religion and science. They disagree about the necessity of a divine creator: Either an intelligent creator must exist, given evidence, or it is not the case that one must exist, given the same evidence. They disagree about how best to explain, say, amazing diversity and complexity in nature. Theists think one cannot explain it without the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but cosmology and evolutionary theory show how one can. Each worldview cultivates contrary attitudes about common-sense, traditional beliefs, and novel assertions. Accept claims based on faith, regardless of evidence, or, believe only those claims grounded in testable evidence. Supernaturals, not being amenable to investigation, could be imaginary and we would not notice any difference.

Tom Pyne: Formal causes are real

It’s crazy to think that after 400 years we should see the revival of formal causes. Nonetheless, I think we will – and should.

Aristotelian natural philosophy appealed to the substantial form of the object and the capacities its substantial form bestows. Thus, a medieval Aristotelian explanation of why a material object continues in motion after it leaves the thrower’s hand involves the reception of an impressed form (impetus) which continued it in motion. In short, an acceleration, whose effects were describable by the Galilean formula ‘f = ma.’

Galileo was consciously anti-Aristotelian. He produced algebraic formulas which tell how much mass or acceleration is required to produce a given force, but offer no account of why.

Philosophers of science drew the wrong lesson: since the great increase in scientific knowledge occurred after the breakdown of the Aristotelian synthesis, that synthesis prevented it. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. On the contrary, medieval natural philosophers had the resources to produce the scientific revolution – and came close to doing so.

Instead of substantial forms we have ‘laws of nature,‘ and centuries of debate over their force. Since they’re inductive, what confidence do we have about the future? Since they’re idealizations, they’re (strictly speaking) false. What’s with that? Do metaphysical cops enforce the law of gravity?

The capacities and powers substantial forms bestow on their objects are dispositional. In suitable circumstances the disposition is manifested, otherwise not. And if not no ‘law’ is broken. There is no natural necessity to cause problems.

Russell DiSilvestro: First Over third

Your first-person perspective sometimes has more legitimate epistemic authority for you than any combination of third-person perspectives—even in limit cases where it’s you versus your time’s unanimous scientific opinion.

Crazy, ain’t it? After all, some lunatics say as much: “don’t bother me with scientific or other “facts”; I just know I’m right, period.” Perhaps each of us can be gripped by a dogma that we think we know—perhaps via introspection—to be the truth about some matter. This happens in most areas of philosophy, including ethics—think of your strongest (a-)moral intuition—and philosophy of religion—think of your most vivid (anti-)religious experience. Silly subjectivism!

More seriously, sometimes your first-person perspective may rightly trump all third-person ones—combined. Forget what the crowd on the street all says; you—and only you—saw the whole traffic accident unfold from the window above the intersection. Even an equatorial tribesman who’s never seen or heard of frozen water should believe in it when his own lyin’ eyes are staring at an ice cube. (‘Course, same goes for when he hears a third-person report about ice by a trusty Scotsman—even one named David Hume.)

Also, isn’t the third-person edifice of empirical natural science built entirely of…first-person stones? Of scientist observations from individual experiments? Isn’t trying to do such science without first-person perspectives like trying to make bricks without straw (while building a pyramid)? The authority of first- over third- may be that of vine over branches.

Dan Weijers: Quantitative prudential hedonism is our best theory of prudential value

Quantitative prudential hedonism—all and only pleasure is intrinsically good for us (and the opposite for pain), and the value of pleasure or pain felt at any moment is dictated solely by the intensity of the pleasure/pain. 

Some implications: 
a) the good life is a life with many pleasures and few pains; 
b) non-pleasures that seem good for us are only good to the extent that they lead to pleasure for us;  
c) events and experiences that do not increase our pleasure or decrease our pain cannot be good for us; 
d) the source or “quality” of the pleasure does not affect its value, only the amount of pleasure affects value.

Quantitative prudential hedonism is thought to be crazy because another of its implications: connecting to a flawless machine that ensures a constant and intense feeling of pleasure BUT NO OTHER EXPERIENCES AT ALL is the best thing that anyone could do to further their own welfare. To most people, this sounds like crazy talk!

But how are we to know what being attached to such a machine would be like? J.S. Mill would have us believe that we’d be in the best position to judge the comparative value of our life and this machine life if we had experienced both. But no one has experienced a life of constant pleasure. So how do we know it won’t be super great?! And remember, any reason you give, I will try to make irrelevant by reducing them to pleasure and pain.


  1. Professor Mayes, I believe this is the very conception of knowledge that I personally arrived at and accepted by the end of your epistemology class. I remember always having trouble accepting truth as a condition of knowledge. This is what adopted me to adopt pragmatist views for all of philosophy - not just epistemology.

  2. Hey Stephen, very cool, thanks for letting me know ;) I don't recall pushing the view back then, so that was all you.