There’s a certain kind of philosopher who plies the trade proving that things we believe in and care deeply about do not really exist: free will, mind, love, evil, knowledge, God, self, the external world. Stuff like that. Call them Spoilers.
The method of the Spoiler is straightforward: (1) Identify a susceptible entity and advance a definition of the term we use to refer to it. (2) Claim that this definition captures its Genuine Meaning. (3) Proceed to argue that there is, in fact, (or, better, logically could never be) anything in the world that satisfies this definition.
There’s another kind of philosopher whose mission it is to rescue these entities from the ignominy of non-existence. Call them Keepers. As I will use the term, a Keeper is not simply someone who attempts to refute a Spoiler’s argument; rather, she is someone who believes that the definition advanced misconceives the entity in question.
There are two different types of Keeper.
Keeper1, accepting the basic methodology of the Spoiler, engages him on his own terms, providing criticisms of his definition and defending an alternative Genuine Meaning. She then permits the Spoiler to respond in kind. Theoretically, this process continues until a mutually acceptable definition emerges. We call this the method of Reflective Equilibrium and it is how Analytic Philosophy gets done.
Keeper2 is someone who is disengaged from the search for Genuine Meaning, at least as a purely philosophical activity. She practices a different method known as Concept Explication. Explication typically occurs when the entity in question is the subject of ongoing scientific inquiry. Hence, when Keeper2 explicates a concept, she does so, not in an attempt to capture a quiddity, but rather in an attempt to clarify it for the purpose of further inquiry.
Consider an example: Knowledge. Most of us stipulate that knowledge is a fine thing and we humans have acquired quite a bit of it. A Spoiler might propose a definition of Genuine Knowledge that implies that to know P we must (in some sense) be certain that P is so. He may then argue that no such P could exist, since all beliefs must be based on evidence, which is inherently uncertain. Ergo, knowledge does not exist.
Whereas Keeper1 objects to the Spoiler’s definition on intuitive grounds, Keeper2 rejects it on methodological grounds. Keeper2 may allow that Spoiler’s definition accurately captures some traditional or intuitive meaning. But she knows that these often stem from immature theories of the entity in question. The failure of anything in the world to satisfy such a definition testifies to the shortcomings of the theory, not to the unreality of the entity.
In general, Keeper2 is interested only in definitions that serve some clear explanatory aim. So, if the subject is knowledge, her question will not be “What is Genuine Knowledge?” Her question will be “What notion of knowledge will best serve the attempt to explain how humans learn about the world?” (Clearly, scientific knowledge has progressed in the face of uncertainty, so the Spoiler’s definition will never do.)
Both types of Keepers should remain of interest to you, but I wish to better your acquaintance with Keeper2, whom I henceforth refer to simply as Keeper. Let’s look at a few other perennial targets of Spoiler and how Keeper might rejoin.
Spoiler argues that everything we know about the physical world entails that free will is an illusion. For him, genuine free will involves a moment of choice between multiple options, all of which are equally available to the agent. Spoiler argues that choice, like all events leading up to it, is a purely physical process. Our feeling that it occurs in a “causal gap” is an illusion that itself must have a physical explanation.
Keeper suggests that Spoiler misconceives the nature of free will. He may be credited with accurately characterizing a traditional theory as well as its flaws, but all he has shown is that it is a poor theory. It is the theory that must be discarded, not free will itself. Keeper counters that free will just is the observable human capacity to consider various possible futures and to make decisions aimed at bringing one of them about. The important explanatory questions are how this ability evolved and how it is implemented in the human mind.
For Spoiler, the self is necessarily a Genuine Me that persists unaltered through all physical and mental change. Among other things it is supposed to explain how all of our various sensory modalities can be unified into a single coherent perspective. Spoiler argues that we have no introspective evidence for such an entity, nor any clue how such a thing could perform the functions assigned to it.
Again, Keeper’s response is to suggest that Spoiler is mistaking an inadequate theory for the thing itself. Again, she identifies the self with something that patently exists, namely a being with a self-conception, one that, as the renowned Keeper John Locke observed, “considers itself as itself, the same thing in different times and places.” For Keeper, a successful theory of the self so conceived will be one that explains, inter alia, how humans become aware of their own existence.
God, of course, is a perennial target of the Spoiler. For him, the genuine meaning of God is a traditional one: an eternal supreme person-like being who created the universe and the physical and moral laws by which it is governed. Spoilers argue for the non existence of such a being on a variety of grounds, but generally its radical implausibility, the paucity of evidence in its favor and varieties of fatal incoherence.
Keeper has no commitment to preserving an ancient theory of a creator God. Rather, she identifies God with what indisputably exists, and that is the operating principles of the universe itself. (This, of course, is the God of Spinoza and Einstein.) On the Keeper’s view a theory of God is simply a Theory of Everything.
G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy