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2009-05-19
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Thinking back on the history of philosophy, I started to wonder what the field has actually achieved. Now, of course, philosophy has informed (and continues to do so!) almost every other discipline, but I'm thinking of achievement in a rather strict sense. What major philosophical disputes have been solved in such a way that all mainstream philosophers agree on their solution? What are the main problems whose solutions have been accepted by philosophers in the same way that specialists would agree on a solution in their particular field? If there aren't any such solutions, what does this tell us about philosophy?

Thanks


2009-05-19
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
In the philosophy of mathematics, certain exactly defined positions (e.g. versions of logicism and formalism)  have been conclusively refuted  e.g. by Gödel's theorems. The discovery that the Newtonian physics is in fact false also caused deep troubles for certain Kantian doctrines. Russell's paradox also showed that  certain kind of unrestricted platonism cannot be correct.
Logical positivism, in its original form, seems to be refuted for good. In the theory of perception, we have learned that "the illusion argument" does not, after all, force us to choose between indirect realism and phenomenalism,  but that direct realism is still a possible (and perhaps the best) option - whereas I don't know if anyone believes is phenomenalism any more. In epistemology, we have learned that in order to know something, you don't have to know that you know, and that it is not true that in order to know anything, you have to know something certainly etc. And does any serious philosopher still believe in substance dualism, or idealism? 
So yes, I think there has been some progress... -Panu

2009-05-19
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Panu,

all of your examples are cases of what one might call "negative progress" in philosophy, namely cases where (most) philosophers came to agree that a certain theory or claim is just too implausible to count as a serious theoretical option anymore. However, it is much less clear that there are any remotely convincing examples of "positive progress" in philosophy, that is, of cases where (most) philosophers came to agree that a certain answer to a central philosophical question (e.g. What is knowledge, truth, rightness, meaning?, Is there a god?, Are there universals?) is indeed the most plausible answer.

2009-05-20
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
My examples are negative, sure - in a sense. But the defeat of idealism, phenomenalism, and substance dualism strongly points towards some kind of realist and *broadly* materialist position. And that is indeed the context which (most) competent philosophers today take for granted; there are, of course, interesting debated inside that broad view. Also, my examples from the philosophy of mathematics suggest that pace logicism and formalism, mathematics has substantive content. etc.  These may not be as grand conclusions as some people desire, but it is the best we can do - and it is still some kind of progress (pace some pessimists). That we haven't been able to provide uncontroversial conceptual analyses of some key concepts may indicate that the whole project (of such a conceptual analysis) is a  non-starter. But there is at least one success story: Turing's analysis of the concepts of decidability, and computability.  

2009-05-21
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
There are still some very serious idealists (e.g. John Foster, Bob Adams) and many serious substance dualists (e.g. E.J. Lowe, Martine Nida-Rumelin, Howard Robinson, Richard Swinburne, and a lot of others -- it's often hard to know who's a property dualist and who's a substance dualist, but from conversation, many favor substance dualism).  I can't think of too many phenomenalists, but I suspect its time will come again.  Certainly, many forms of logical empiricism are making a comeback.


2009-05-21
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Yes, I know I was simplifying and  exaggerating a bit... I was merely listing some issues where there is quite a wide argreement, and where there isn't much active controversy going on. (I do think that logical positivism in its original simple and strong form stands refuted, and that nobody is really thinking that it can be rescued.) 

2009-06-02
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
In spite of attempts by followers of Ayn Rand, I think it has been settled philosophically anyway, that Ethical Egoism is not a suitable basis for morality.  Undergraduate philosophy students may have an intuition that is what really is the basis for ethical reflection, but it seems that most Intro to Ethics courses contain some refutation of ethical egoism.

2009-06-04
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
I think there's a mistake in the question. Finding the truth, and achieving consensus are two quite different things. Philosophy aims primarily at finding the truth (though of course we fight to convince one another of what we think is the truth too, and much of the time). Lack of agreement does not indicate lack of achievement, in the important sense of the word. I don't really understand why the lack of agreement amongst philosophers - or in other words the variety of good live philosophical options we have developed - is taken to count against philosophy. This seems to be a classic confusion between matters epistemic and metaphysical (or matters of fact and representations of those matters of fact - incidentally, a distinction that represents a positive result - due to Kripke - and widely agreed upon).

On another note: I'd love to hear the refutation of ethical egoism, I think it's passed me by!

2009-06-04
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Sam Coleman
Perhaps I should have been more careful in phrasing the question. It seems to me as if, in most other disciplines, for something to count as "knowledge" or "truth" (don't take these words too literally), consensus is generally a good guide. Since I can't think of any such cases in philosophy myself, my question to you is: Are there any?

As I wrote in my opening post, I am thinking of achievement in a rather strict sense. I am not taking the lack of agreement amongst philosophers to count against philosophy – I am merely comparing philosophy with disciplines whose specialists appear to agree on more things than philosophers do. 

Oh, and thank you for the Kripke example!

2009-06-05
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Still seems misconceived to me. Either you're asking for cases of wide agreement, or putative cases of solutions. I take it that it's really the former.

Well then here's a couple more: Gettier's refutation of knowledge analysed as JTB, and Descartes' Cogito 'argument'. Russell's analysis of definite descriptions.

2009-06-05
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Sam Coleman
I wouldn't be surprised if, for almost all traditional philosophical questions, a good number of philosophers had already found the correct answer at least in outline (counting answers along the lines of "ill-formed question" among potentially correct answers). The problem is knowing who and drawing on this knowledge. Knowing the truth is nearly worthless unless one can spread it. So I think it's fair to include consensus in the mission statement for philosophy. 

2009-06-10
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to David Bourget
I wonder how this question would have been answered in say 400 BC or 100 AD or 1300AD, or 1600AD.  I wonder how it might be answered in 2200.  It's so easy to believe that the pond one is swimming in is the whole ocean...

DA

2009-06-10
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
I'm with Derek on this. Who can tell how early in the discipline we are? Comparatively, the various mainstream sciences may be far further along the line towards 'completion' (if that's feasible) than we are.

2009-06-12
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Sam Coleman
Just a brief thought to add to my last.

It seems to me - and I may be wrong - that to believe that any major philosophical issues have been conclusively solved one would have to believe one of four alternatives:

(1) that all previous attempts to solve said problems were based on certain presuppositions, but the modern "conclusive" solutions are based on none at all (they are "presuppositionless").

(2) that all previous attempts were based on incorrect presuppositions, and we now have the correct ones.

(3) that all previous attempts were based on correct presuppositions but that all previous philosophers made mistakes in reasoning from said presuppositions.

(4) philosophy always proceeds by a kind of intellectual "progress" and in the case of these conclusive solutions the final stage has at last been reached (a kind of Hegelian stance).

Two questions:

(a) Have I missed any? 

(b) Which one would those who believe some major issues have been conclusively solved opt for? (To my mind, none of them seem very attractive).


DA

2009-06-13
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Derek Allan
Another alternative occurred to me (though presumably no one would want to choose it):

(5) All philosophers of the past, even the greatest, when confronted with these "major issues now conclusively solved" were hampered by their limited intelligence and philosophical aptitude. It is only the present generation of philosophers that possesses the good sense, intelligence and insight needed to solve these problems.

DA

2009-06-14
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Derek Allan
I guess another option would be to say that past philosophers simply didn't consider the issue – though, of course, one could then argue that the qualifier "major" is inappropriate. 

2009-06-15
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Yes, that's what I thought, Aron.  I was assuming that we were talking about issues that had been tackled before, but unsuccessfully (though, come to think of it, I suppose that that begs a question - "unsuccessful' in whose eyes?)

I think this whole issue is quite important, incidentally. If one thinks that the book has been closed, so to speak, on certain major philosophical issues (and personally I am rather sceptical about that claim), then the natural next question seems to be: why did everyone else in times past go wrong?  The options I've listed are the only ones I can think of - and none of them appeals to me very much. So it seems a bit of a quandary.

DA

2009-06-18
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Derek Allan
D.A.,
Maybe I'm missing something obvious, but what's so unappealing about the alternatives you suggest? It seems to me that 2 and 3 are the most reasonable explanations for why past inquiries go astray in any rationally governed field, not just philosophy. E.g., two early proofs for the four color theorem were offered separately by Alfred Kempe and Peter Guthrie Tait in the 19th century, and both proofs were initially judged successful by the mathematical community; yet both proofs were subsequently refuted around eleven years later. Although I don't know the details of these refutations, presumably Kempe and Tait each either assumed something that was unwarranted or committed some deductive error in their respective proofs. So, now we can look back at these endeavors and say that there occurred a situation analogous to your options 2 and 3. All previous attempts--or at least the ones under consideration here--were based on incorrect presuppositions or false reasoning, while today we do have Appel and Haken's solid proof (or so we hope). I don't see any problems with that, and I don't see why the situation should be different for philosophy (or, again, for any rational endeavor).

Unfortunately, I can't really offer any examples of conclusive solutions from philosophy itself, so I can't help there. To my knowledge, no one accepts radical behaviorism at all anymore, and the ontological argument (at least as originally presented) has been fairly firmly discredited; and there are other similar cases, of course. These are rejected solutions rather than positive solutions, as Joachim Horvath pointed out--but that fact may not necessarily be too worrying for philosophy, since every time we shoot down a competing hypothesis, we're (hopefully) that much closer to the "best" solution.

(By the way, your options don't appear to take into account the possibility that a conclusive philosophical solution might be one that has existed all along, it's just that many philosophers did not recognize or believe in it. This probably doesn't matter too much, though.)



2009-06-19
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Nathan Holmes
Hi Nathan

Thanks for your reply.  I was however thinking specifically of philosophy and, as the title of the thread says, major issues in philosophy.

I was interested in your comment that "...as Joachim Horvath pointed out--but that fact may not necessarily be too worrying for philosophy, since every time we shoot down a competing hypothesis, we're (hopefully) that much closer to the "best" solution."  "

"Best" worries me a bit, and the scare quotes don't take the worry away.  "Best" does not mean "correct". Can we say that an issue has been "conclusively solved" if it is only regarded as the "best" (scare quotes) solution?

Also, the underlying thought here seems to be either that (a) philosophy is like science - always getting closer to the correct solution (assuming we can even use "correct" for science); or (b) that there is a kind of Hegelian thing going on (my option 4) and philosophy is assumed to be in a state of continual progress towards a final goal.  I don't know Horvath but I am guessing he would be in the (a) camp? - which incidentally should perhaps be another option on my list. It would be something like:

(6) Philosophy is a scientific study and, like science itself, it is always edging towards the correct solution, and in some cases this has been reached.

There is, I imagine, a 7th which would be based on your final comment that "a conclusive philosophical solution might be one that has existed all along" but perhaps as you suggest we can leave that one aside.

(Personally I still do not find any of the options attractive.)


DA

2009-06-21
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Derek Allan
DA,
Yes, I do recognize that you meant philosophy specifically. I used the mathematics example to compare intuitions across fields: it seems to me, as I said, that this is how the pursuit of solutions works in any rational investigation, not just philosophy. In my opinion mathematics happens to be, due to its incomparable clarity and rigor, the best source of examples where problems have been definitively solved; plus, its highly logical nature makes it more easily analogous to philosophical arguments. If you do not mind the way correct mathematical solutions refute all past attempts, what is so different when it comes to philosophy?

The next concern you raise is a fair one. What we call a "conclusive solution" is always going to be bit shaky and case-dependent, at least for matters of any complexity. Mathematics, by analogy, seems to have conclusively solved a great many mathematical problems--but as the history of the four color theorem demonstrates, there isn't always a guarantee that any one solution is truly conclusive. As far as I can tell, mathematicians too must work under the assumption that theorems proved now might be somehow shown faulty at a later time, as incredible as that thought may seem. (Although again, this is probably true only above a certain degree of complexity).

So, yes, there is the possibility that there simply cannot be final, definitive, end-all philosophical solutions (or any final, definitive, 100% certain knowledge, at the risk of dragging us all into radical skepticism). Personally, I would tend to call conclusive that which successfully stands over a decent period of time under a large amount of scrutiny, even granting the possibility that what seems so certain now might be falsified later. Or, there might eventually be proposed answers to which every respectable philosopher assents immediately and permanently upon learning; and that seems fairly convincing too.

I'm still curious about why specifically you find options 2 and 3 unattractive for philosophy, by the way.

2009-06-21
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Nathan Holmes
NH: "If you do not mind the way correct mathematical solutions refute all past attempts, what is so different when it comes to philosophy?"

I'm not sure about maths, not being a mathematician, but my answer to your question is simple: because philosophy is not mathematics (though I'm aware some have tried to turn it into mathematics.)

NH: "I would tend to call conclusive that which successfully stands over a decent period of time under a large amount of scrutiny,"

But that would mean for example that Aristotelian thinking - which stood for hundreds of years - would qualify as conclusive. And if we shorten what we mean by 'decent'  Descartes didn't do too badly there for a while, and even Hegel. 

NH: "I'm still curious about why specifically you find options 2 and 3 unattractive for philosophy, by the way".

These options were:

(2) that all previous attempts were based on incorrect presuppositions, and we now have the correct ones.

(3) that all previous attempts were based on correct presuppositions but that all previous philosophers made mistakes in reasoning from said presuppositions.

For (2) the worry would simply be: how do we know we have the correct presuppositions (especially bearing in mind that our predecessors no doubt thought they had the correct ones too)?.

For (3) we would need to show that all previous philosophers made mistakes on the major issue in question. Assuming that said philosophers include names of note, one would need to be very sure of one's ground. In other words, there could be a slight trace of hubris in this claim. (And what about the future I wonder? Will there be a philosopher one day who feels he is entitled to lump us in with 'all previous philosophers who had made mistakes'? Are we sure there won't be?)

All this only matters because the issue is about philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved - i.e. where we can safely close the book once and for all. I frankly doubt that any major issues have been - or ever will be - in this category. Philosophy is too closely linked to people's fundamental assumptions about life - which change over time and of which they are often only dimly aware.

DA


2009-06-24
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Derek Allan
DA: "But that would mean for example that Aristotelian thinking - which stood for hundreds of years - would qualify as conclusive. And if we shorten what we mean by 'decent'  Descartes didn't do too badly there for a while, and even Hegel."

True, I retract that criterion then. To express more properly what I had in mind, I would need to tack quite a bit on to that requirement; but I think doing so isn't needed right now, so I surrender that point to you.


Regarding options (2) and (3): thank you for clarifying your misgivings. Now I'm led to wonder, however, about your position on our epistemic relation to truth in general. It seems to me that every--or nearly every--item that we could call "knowledge" is susceptible to the uncertainty that results from seeking a justification which itself needs no further justification (the "unconditioned", Kant called it). This, I take it, is part of the gist behind your criticisms of (2) and (3); I will address (3)'s other point (i.e. showing the mistakes of all previous philosophers) later. Anyway, without one of those mythical self-sufficient justifications, we're left forever asking, "But how do you know that? ...And how do you know that?", etc.
Right, this is old hat: the skeptic's infinite regress. We can also say, hey, anything which we think true now might be judged false by future generations; because we have been wrong in the past, we infer that we might again be wrong in the future. Again, typical skepticism, but now with a stronger bearing on your criticisms of (2) and (3). What certainty do we ever have that we've settled anything conclusively?

In the strictest sense, I don't think we can have that sort of anti-skeptical certainty. However, from a practical point of view we do need to accept certain propositions as true, or at least act as though they're true. That kind of practical necessity leads me to believe that at some point we can or perhaps even must decide that we reach definitive conclusions, even if we simultaneously grant the possibility that those conclusions may be falsified later on. So, in day-to-day life and in non-philosophical disciplines, we accept conclusions even though these domains are not free from the problems in (2) and (3) either. Similarly, to establish anything in philosophy would require the practical acceptance of conclusions that we recognize may one day be disproved.

Regarding the other part of (3) which I previously neglected but promised I'd return to: I deny that it's necessary to show that each and every past philosopher employed wrong methods. If I know as a given that my conclusion is right, and other conclusions differ from mine, then every past conclusion which is not equivalent to my conclusion (assuming the problem has but one solution) is wrong; in which case it follows naturally that all previous efforts employed either bad reasoning or bad premises.


2009-06-24
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Nathan Holmes
Nathan

Re your comment: "So, in day-to-day life and in non-philosophical disciplines, we accept conclusions even though these domains are not free from the problems in (2) and (3) either. Similarly, to establish anything in philosophy would require the practical acceptance of conclusions that we recognize may one day be disproved."

I am happy to agree that in practical terms we need to accept a whole host of things. But that is truth 'for practical purposes' not conclusive philosophical truth - as I think your comment recognizes.

The issue is an interesting one I think. I notice a tendency in modern philosophy to talk about the 'best answer' to something, as if one could rest content with that. But the 'best' answer may, after all, be a hopelessly wrong answer. (It may just be the least bad answer among a host of bad ones.) I wonder if in such cases we are seeing the importation into philosophy of a kind of practical standard of truth? If that were so, I think philosophy would be losing its way and turning into a kind of parascience (a word I just invented on the analogy of paramedical etc).  

DA  

2009-09-22
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
How about this one: Democritus was right about his "atoms and void". I certainly think that school of thought is on pretty firm ground nowadays--and the "everything is fire" and "everything is water" people have been soundly thrashed and sent scurrying from the field.

What does the relative paucity of "settled" arguments tell us about philosophy? I'd say it tells us that philosophers are a disagreeable lot. In fact, I think philosophers are positively repelled by agreement. Show me two philosophers who agree, and I'll show you a couple of philosophers who haven't bothered to read each other's papers.

In fact, I bet some people who read what I just wrote are muttering "that's not philosophy--it's science".  Which proves my point: the moment a question has been settled, philosophers want to get rid of it!

2009-10-04
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Of course the requirement that all the competent experts agree is very hard to satisfy in most disciplines.
But there is just-about consensus that the old Logical Problem of Evil will not work. Al Plantinga's
version of the Free-Will Defense is very widely thought to have shown this.

Less decided but I think still worth noting is that presentism is having a very hard time of it
(despite the extraordinary ingenuity of presentists in defending it against mounting numbers of objections).
Presentists I talk to anyhow are increasingly doubtful.

Also less decided but worth noting is that most everybody agrees that sets do need to be allowed
into an ontology capable of dealing with mathematics.

Similarly mereology is becoming a standard part of the ontologist's tool kit--which doesn't preclude serious questions about it
but that's science.

It is widely accepted that Frege's logic is more powerful and more rational than Aristotelian logic.
I also think there have been important and widely accepted advances in modal logic.

A lot of questions arise because new and better logical methods either raise them for the first time
or provide a way to better frame old questions.



2009-10-06
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Jim Stone
Jim, thank you for that observation re Plantinga; I'd always been impressed by his treatment of the problem of evil, but I'd missed the part about its adoption by consensus. I suppose that's the price for not paying attention to philosophy for the last 30 years. Of course, having heard this, I am now tempted to go re-read Plantinga and attempt a refutation...
A lot of questions arise because new and better logical methods either raise them for the first time
or provide a way to better frame old questions.
And I think that's perceptive also, though I may be taking it in a way other than you intended. I have always felt that, in philosophy, getting better answers is far less important than getting better questions. I have pretty fundamental problems with the question as originally phrased by Aron; I don't agree with the view of what counts as philosophical achievement that's implied by that question. (Can one disagree with a question? Can a question be false? Well, yes.)

How about some other disciplines: has literary criticism achieved some final results? How about the theory or practice of visual arts? The progress made by so-called "soft" sciences is also debatable: how about psychotherapy? Sociology? Political "science"?

I suspect that what underlies Aron's question may be the modern notion of progress. We're steeped in the notion that every field of endeavor should show progress, and that progress looks like the development of applied science in the last 150 years. I'm not sure about that. One hundred and fifty years is a pretty short time; it may be that progress itself is not the enduring constant we think it is.

2009-11-24
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Each philosopher may think differently, but I defend the following conclusions as take-home points from the recent history of philosophy.
  • Theoretical scientific knowledge can not be arrived at by induction, and scientific models are not constructed by inductive means.
  • Knowledge does not begin from blank slate: Innate implicit knowledge is possible with basis in both biological and social context.
  • Perception is not passive, agent's prior knowledge and capacities does play a major role.
  • Generativism (Larry Laudan's term for the view that knowledge can be justified by addressing the sources of knowledge) is invalid.
  • The use of metatypes (type of types, after B. Russel) stays in formal semantics.
  • Atomism of all kinds is suspect.

2009-12-01
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Sam Coleman
Seems to me that the question is perfectly well posed -- not sure why so many seem to have a problem with it. The question is whether philosophy as a scholarly pursuit has yielded consensus on any historically disputed topic, analogous to the consensus views in other disciplines. The question is not whether that consensus formed around  a "correct" solution, but whether a feature common to other scholarly pursuits, consensus, is present at all in philosophy. I just don't see why that's at all incoherent, and it strikes me as a very interesting question.

I think Sam Coleman's mention of Russell's theory of descriptions (not inclusive of naming) seems a very plausible candidate. It's not undisputed (viz. Strawson), but there seems to be a fairly reasonable consensus that definite descriptions are quantificational. I would offer up also a couple additional ideas. 

Zeno's Paradoxes now seem fairly well resolved, though there has been some recent literature suggesting that calculus doesn't entirely eliminate the philosophical issues raised. Arguably, the problem was solved via mathematics rather than philosophy, but there were philosophical precursors to the development of differential calculus, which more or less give the accepted resolution (if I had a better memory, I could cite them offhand).

Arguably, the Burali-Forti Paradox and Russell Paradox have been "solved". That is, there is fairly general consensus that the cumulative model for sets is the proper way of understanding collections of things. Of course, there are numerous alternatives, which have their fair share of adherents. That said, even those favoring New Foundations or Aczel's set theory or whatever will likely acknowledge that the cumulative model has something resembling a majority endorsement among philosophers of mathematics -- and likely philosophers generally. This seems to me a pretty concrete positive consensus, of the sort queried.

Also, it seems to me that philosophy will, in general, inherently produce fewer consensus theories than other disciplines, in virtue of its speculative charge. What I mean is that once a particular branch of philosophy acquires a firmer more substantive grounding, it generally gets recognized as an independent field of study in its own right, and simply no longer counts as "philosophy". You might say that the "natural philosophy" disputes of the Eleatic philosophers and the Greek atomists have largely been "solved", giving birth to modern physics. Admittedly, I am playing fast and loose with words when I say that philosophy gave birth to modern physics, and I'm not really very qualified to speak on history, but without doing so here, one can surely see how such a thing might be backed up with historical examples of philosophers contributing to "natural philosophy" in a substantive way. I freely admit that I may be way off the mark here, but in the absence of any clear objections to this general line of speculation, I proceed undaunted.

Economics is one of the more recent studies that philosophy "gave birth" to, and that field certainly answers a great number of questions about the role of currency, the distribution of labor, and the role of government in the market. This is not to say that there is any particular consensus about whether, say, monetarism or Keynesian policies are more effective. Rather, descriptive economics seems to be quite good at explaining a wide range of economic phenomena, which were once formerly considered philosophical questions. It is certainly no coincidence that major figures in the development of that science were philosophers (I'm thinking especially Mill and Keynes). 

Which is all my speculation that once philosophers begin to coalesce around a particular solution to a problem, its investigation takes on a less speculative character, and as the research becomes more concrete, the foundations more established, it breaks off from philosophy proper and becomes its own independent field of inquiry. Supposing current speculation about mind yields some sort of very convincing, very illuminating model of consciousness, which gains nearly universal consensus. It seems to me quite plausible that scholarly inquiry into artificial intelligence or cognition will branch off into its own independent study, separate from philosophy, and further research in that direction will be less speculative and more technical in nature. We might, speculating about it today, count this is as a major achievement for philosophers of mind, but perhaps 500 years from now, philosophers will discount this "philosophical" achievement as the product of cognitionists (or whatever label they adopt) and not philosophers. I hope I'm being reasonably clear on this. My point is that when philosophers achieve consensus on an issue, the issue very often ceases to count as "philosophy", and breaks off to become an independent, more technical field of study.

Lastly, it seems to me quite possible that the question can be usefully broadened to include disjunctions. So, perhaps there is no consensus among philosophers about, say, whether theory A or theory B best explains problem X. But we might usefully say that philosophers agree that A and B are the only reasonable options. Of course, this can be quite trivial and crude in cases like: "There is a consensus among philosophers a) that possible worlds really exist or b) that they don't really exist." And I don't mean to suggest disjunctions that exhaust all the possible solutions (or a uselessly large swath of possibilities) to a historically disputed issue should be considered a "consensus". But there are surely cases (though I can't think of any offhand) where there has been a considerable winnowing of possibilities, so that the live possibilities are considerably fewer than what we once thought plausible. Although this would probably result from an accumulation of negative consensus views, it would add up to a positive consensus view for a far narrower range of plausible explanations.

Perhaps one final interesting note -- it seems to me rather likely (though I have nothing apart from personal experience to support my suspicion) that there is something close to a consensus among philosophers that God does not exist. This is probably not a strong consensus in the sense that a majority (or even a significant minority) of philosophers are willing to say definitively that they believe that the nonexistence of God is established. However, it would seem to me that rather a minority of philosophers themselves personally believe in a god, and this surely suggests something that might loosely be called a consensus on a major issue -- although it's probably considerably weaker than what Aron was asking.






2009-12-01
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Daniel Pi
Concerning God, John Hawthorne, Dean Zimmerman, Peter Van Inwagen, Michael Rea, Al Plantinga, Robert and Marilyn Adams, Lynne Baker, Michael Loux,
John Cottingham, Steve Wykstra......(lots more) are believers. Many top analytic philosophers are serious Christians,

2009-12-01
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Jim Stone
I love the idea that a consensus - or non-consensus - of philosophers has any bearing on whether God exists or not (and what God/s?!!)

Imagine having - or not having - a religious faith on the basis of a consensus! One would presumably have to keep half on eye on academic trends in case the consensus changed.

DA

2009-12-02
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Jim Stone
One should add that they are not usually taken as top analytic philosophers for that reason. Many of them have some area of speciality (with nothing to do with religion) where they are respected for their work... Compare: some decades ago, a number of top scientist were hard-line communists - but of course, that in itself does not give much justification for the view.
    There is a more general lesson here for this thread: it is probably possible to find, for almost any philosophical view, some respected philosophers who advocate that view. But whether these philosophers are experts of that area, and whether they are highly respected by their peers because of their work on that topic, is a wholly different issue. A brilliant logician can have terrible views concerning metaphysics, not to mention ethics; a distinguished philosopher of language can have totally preposterious ideas about the philosophy of science, and vice versa, and so on. 

2009-12-02
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
The situation is somewhat different. Christian philosophers in analytic philosophy, while they are often well known for work in other areas, are usually up to speed in
philosophy of religion. Indeed,  many of them work in it too. They belong to the Society for Christian Philosophers, they have a journal, Faith and Philosophy.
In effect they are organized. Christian theism is an important intellectual movement in analytic philosophy, there is a widespread effort to attack
naturalism and sometimes Evolutionary theory, and it includes many of the top people. This is partly a result of deliberate decisions that Christian
philosophers would argue religious positions in mainstream analytic philosophy.

2009-12-02
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Jim Stone
I am afraid I don't see the relevance of any of this for the key point I was making... and I surely knew all that; just the sort of things you expect religious people to do (own societies, own journals; very rarely this stuff ends up in the pages of top-level philosophy journals).
There are two slightly different points I wanted to make:
First, that someone is both a distinguished philosopher and, say, a Christian (or a communist, or a Scientologist), does not as such entail that the person has good *philosophical* grounds for holding the latter conviction.
Second, one can doubt that the philosophers mentioned would be as well-known and respected among the peers as they are solely on the basis of their work on the philosophy of religion.

This does not rule out that some of these philosophers actually are as well-educated about the philosophy of religion as anyone, and have  worked in the field (though I do think, and I believe many - in whatever side - may agree that, the philosophy of religion is not the most progressive part of philosophy at the moment).
 
But let me rather say that all this is certainly sufficient to call into question to the previous claim, that  "there is something close to a consensus among philosophers that God does not exist". That is too ... hmm... what? ... - optimistic?

2009-12-02
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Philosophy of religion is extraordinarily vital and progressive these days, largely on account of the deliberate participation of top analytic philosophers,
many of whom  are indeed considered at the top substantially to significantly on account of their work in philosophy of religion. A good deal of epistemology, probability
theory, metaphysics, work on vagueness, philosophy of biology and so on is being worked out in the context of philosophy of religion. Also there
is a sustained attack on naturalism, on several fronts (you might search on Plantinga/Dennett debate on evolution and naturalism).  Christian theism is right
now one of the engines driving analytic philosophy in the USA.

2009-12-02
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Jim Stone
It is perfectly possible, of course, for the "top" people in any field - and especially philosophy - to be heading with admirable grace and elegance down a blind alley.

DA

2009-12-02
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Derek Allan
Philosophy has been called the art of making interesting mistakes. You can learn all kinds of interesting and useful stuff going down blind alleys..

2009-12-02
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Jim Stone
Yes, and waste a lot of your own, and other people's, time and effort as well.

Not to mention the possible harmful side-effects of promoting theories, and ways of understanding the world, that turn out to be misconceived and misleading...

DA

2009-12-03
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Derek Allan
I figure as long as we learn interesting and useful things from our failures, they weren't a waste of time.
The gift is to make the right mistakes. As to the harmful side-effects of arguing for theories that turn out to be mistaken,
either one isn't read or there are answering voices alive to the mistakes. I find it hard to mislead people, though
I keep trying.

Undeniably there are risks in trying to come to a
theoretical understanding of the world. May I ask why you do philosophy?

2009-12-03
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Jim Stone
Jim

You are shifting ground somewhat. I was responding to your statement that "Philosophy has been called the art of making interesting mistakes." This makes it sound as if mistakes are worth making for their own sake - as if there were something intrinsically worthwhile in doing so.  I do not doubt on the other hand that one can sometimes learn from mistakes.

Why do I do philosophy?  Well, certainly not in the hope of making interesting mistakes. In very general terms, I do philosophy in the hope of understanding those things about human life that seem to me to be important.  This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why I often find "analytic" philosophy so disappointing: so much of its time is spent on problems that seem to me of marginal importance at best, and even when it does occasionally tackle important problems, it has the unhappy knack of trivializing them.

I am not a "continental" philosopher either, but continentals at least have the saving grace that they often seem to want to engage with important problems, even if they don't always manage to do so.

(Dear me! Here I am perpetuating the "divide" myself!)

DA


2009-12-04
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Derek Allan
The question was whether there were consensus opinions in philosophy. I suggested the possibility, with plenty of softening modifiers, that perhaps a large majority are atheists. I hardly made the claim with any certainty or presumption that it actually is the case. And even if it were (i.e. there were a large majority of atheists), I never implied that this had any bearing on whether it was actually the case that God or a god existed. And I don't really think that naming individual philosophers, who happen to believe in God, demonstrates anything more than that there isn't universal consensus. But that was never my suggestion anyway. 


This thread seems to suffer from repeated confusion between "consensus" and "truth". To acknowledge a consensus among philosophers does not mean that the consensus opinion is therefore true, just as the absence of a consensus does not mean that there is no truth of the matter. A large majority of opinions may very well agree, and claiming that there is a majority view is hardly equivalent to an endorsement of that view as fact. I think this is as true of any other field of scholarly inquiry as it is of philosophy. Obviously, if you (mistakenly) identify consensus and truth, then you'd be quite justified in being skeptical about whether philosophy is even capable of generating a consensus. I just don't see why it's so hard to separate the ideas here. I continue to think it is very plausible that a majority of philosophers happen to be atheists, and are generally disposed toward skepticism about supernatural entities. This does not mean that there aren't very many vocal exceptions. And this certainly does not mean that the question has been "settled". It simply means that there is a majority viewpoint that might be called a "consensus", albeit not universal consensus. I specifically mention in my earlier post that this is considerably weaker than the sort of "conclusively solved" question Aron was asking for. 






2009-12-04
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Daniel Pi
Consensus and conclusiveness are obviously different issues, but both questions are interesting... Sometimes, consensus (of some sort) is the best we have to go on...
It seems that sometimes (often?) in philosophy a view may have been conclusively rebutted, but some or (even most philosophers) do not know or admit that, simply because  of being ingnorant about the relevant argument, or just being dogmatic and in denial, or whatever. It may happen that the majority of the philosophers (in general) hold certain view, but pretty much all the specialists really competent in that field hold the opposite view. In such cases, it is important to ask whose consensus it is that is relevant...  (that is, if we are interested in consensus).

2009-12-04
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Daniel Pi
My apologies if I misunderstood you, Daniel.  The title of the thread is "Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?" so I probably assumed you were suggesting that a consensus indicates that some kind of solution has been reached.

If this is not what you were thinking, what philosophical importance do you place on a consensus - even a very strong consensus?  It's quite a topical question given the recent questionnaire seeking opinions on various philosophical issues. Personally I am rather puzzled about the point of such a questionnaire, given that philosophical truth is - as you yourself seem to saying - presumably not a matter of majority opinion - even an overwhelming majority.

DA

 

2009-12-04
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Derek Allan
Philosophy papers often begin with calling something a dominant or received view (and then argue against it). I often wonder whether these views really are that dominant... So I must say I am a bit curious about such issues. But I certainly agree that the great majority of philosophres may be (and has often been) just wrong...  

2009-12-05
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Yes, I think it is a huge mistake to think that simply because there is a consensus around an issue - even a strong consensus - it has been effectively "resolved". It only takes one thinker perceptive enough to see that beneath the supposed consensus there are certain presuppositions that are open to serious question and the value of said consensus evaporates straight away. 

This is why I think exercises such as the recent questionnaire are a waste of time - worse, they tend to foster the idea that there may be some intrinsic value in a philosophical consensus, thus encouraging philosophical complacency.

Philosophy has nothing to do with majority votes. There is only one thing that counts and that is a good, sound argument - and that only counts until another one has come along and knocked it over.

DA
.

 

2009-12-06
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Derek Allan
Derek-

Yes, that is the question title of the thread. But the actual post by Aron asks: "What are the main problems whose solutions have been accepted by philosophers in the same way that specialists would agree on a solution in their particular field? If there aren't any such solutions, what does this tell us about philosophy?"

He later clarifies further: "It seems to me as if, in most other disciplines, for something to count as "knowledge" or "truth" (don't take these words too literally), consensus is generally a good guide. Since I can't think of any such cases in philosophy myself, my question to you is: Are there any? [...] I am merely comparing philosophy with disciplines whose specialists appear to agree on more things than philosophers do."

So, in response to the initial post, I listed a number of plausible candidates for what might count as "consensus" beliefs, although the only one that seemed to attract any attention was my "God" suggestion, which I tacked on at the end as a possible case of consensus, though even if it were a consensus, I tried to make the very clear distinction that it was not that a large majority is willing to claim definitively that God (or gods) do not exist, but rather than a large majority may happen to hold a personal belief that God does not exist. 

So to answer your question about what philosophical importance there might be in consensus qua consensus (as opposed to consensus qua truth), I think firstly that there are a number of very practical uses. As Panu suggests, it can be useful for identifying a "received view" when presenting a controversial view. It can be also useful to look at what other people, who are interested in a particular problem, might have concluded. Of course, their conclusions (even if shared by a large majority) should not be taken as a substitute for an evaluation of their arguments for that conclusion. But it seems to me rather too idealistic (I do not intend the term here to be taken in the philosophical sense of "idealism") to only care about truths and facts, and not to care what other people believe to be truths or facts. Obviously, regarding the questionnaire, there is some curiosity about what the cumulative opinions of philosophers might be, even though we should be quite wary not to confuse consensus opinion with truth, nor to place undue interest in the number of believers in a solution at the expense of their arguments for accepting that conclusion. I guess my question to you is, are you not curious about the results of the survey? I wouldn't change any of my views on the basis of the results (nor should anyone), nor would I take it as a substitute (not even the shadow of a ghost of a substitute) for reasoned argument. But are you really not even curious what the conclusions of other people might be? Are you really only curious about justified, true solutions to philosophical problems?

Secondly, as Aron points out in his clarification, consensus may generally be a good guide to determining what might count as "knowledge" or "truth" (note special emphasis on softening italicized words). In other words, the consensus view does not determine what is true, simply what is plausible, given what we know already. So, to return to the "God" thing, suppose instead that 90% of philosophers polled believe that unicorns do not exist. And let us suppose that 45% are willing to endorse that as true, while another 45% are unwilling to endorse it, but simply happen to not believe in unicorns personally. It could still turn out that there is a rare species of horned horse running around in some remote forest -- however unlikely that might be -- and they would all be proven wrong. I don't think that anyone ought to disbelieve in unicorns because 90% of philosophers don't believe in unicorns. They ought to disbelieve in unicorns because there aren't any credible reports of unicorns being observed, and the extreme plausibility of it being explained as a mythological concoction, etc. Once you independently arrive at your conclusion, it may be interesting to discover that other people largely agree or disagree with your conclusion, and you can do something to address that, if you think that the consensus view is wrong. That should seem reasonable, and it should remain reasonable when you replace "unicorn" with "God". This gives consensus a useful, albeit not central, role in the field. 

Finally, I am always very annoyed when philosophers bad-mouth philosophy. Aron seemed to want to be very clear that he wasn't trying to suggest, in his question, that philosophy is in any way inferior to other subjects of inquiry, simply due to its small number of consensus beliefs. However, despite his not taking it as a hit against "philosophy", I have often heard the absurd view from philosophers that the small number of consensus beliefs that philosophy has produced is somehow indicative of the futility of philosophical inquiry. Indeed, many have taken this as their philosophical view, more-or-less. So it seemed worthwhile to point out that a large number of philosophical views do seem to have consensus in the same way that other fields have consensus, even if those consensus beliefs sometimes turn out to be mistaken. The point I was trying to suggest (though I might well be wrong) is that philosophy is not all that different from other fields. Sure, there are fewer consensus beliefs, which I tried to give reasons for. But there do exist consensus beliefs, ergo the purported absence of consensus beliefs should not be mistaken for "the futility of philosophical inquiry" (though I leave open the possibility that it may be futile for other reasons).

2009-12-07
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Daniel Pi
Hi Daniel

Yes, I am curious about other people's views. But I doubt if the Chalmers questionnaire is any real help there. It's much too rough and ready an instrument. (E.g. people may answer "yes" or "no"  to a question for all kinds of different reasons.  Much better to read the articles etc they have written.)

On your second point, I wasn't thinking of elementary propositions such as whether unicorns exist. (Why, incidentally, does modern philosophy so often choose artificial cases like this?  It's like the bizarre world of "thought experiments".) I was thinking about significant arguments - e.g. about the nature of human consciousness, or language, or art.  In this kind of context, I don't give a tinker's curse what the majority view is. As I said, it's the quality of an argument that counts. Nothing more, nothing less.

Let's take my own field - philosophy of art. I can think of several issues where the consensus is probably 9 out of 10 people working in the field, but where I would not be part of that consensus. And in these cases, it wouldn't matter to me if the consensus were 999,999 out of 1,000,000, or more; I would still not agree. One doesn't decide philosophical arguments on the numbers. Leave that to the politicians.

DA






2009-12-23
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
The idea of progress in philosophy is to me incomprehensible. The only philosophical doctrines that have been refuted were strongly allied with scientific theories that were finally empirically disconfirmed. There is progress in science, and philosophy participates at this progress. But philosophy itself is incapable of progressing in any clear sense of the word. There are only subjects or positions that fall out of fashion; when discussion has lasted long enough and all the arguments have been exhausted, philosophers just move on to discuss something else. Nothing is ever refuted, all that happens is that some philosophical doctrines  are drained of their interest, their discussion is not anymore intellectually stimulating, it does not allow any novelty (for a while). Briefly stated, philosophical positions are abandoned when endorsing them does not help a philosopher to advance in his career or to improve his professional reputation.   

2009-12-24
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
If it were really the case that "philosophical positions are abandoned when endorsing them does not help a philosopher to advance in his career or to improve his professional reputation", and if it were really the case that there is no other reason for arguing a particular philosophical point of view, philosophy would be one enormous charade, wouldn't it? 

You suggest that philosophical discussion may also be "intellectually stimulating" but even that would not save philosophy, would it?  I mean, that would presumably just mean that it is an entertaining pastime for those who happen to like doing it and privileged enough to be able to - like playing golf or lawn bowls.

If this were really the case, I wonder how one would ever present a case to governments to pay for philosophy courses in universities (and in schools in places like France)? After all, governments don't usually fund activities like golf or lawn bowls. Would one just lie, claim that philosophy is very valuable, and concoct some high-sounding argument suitably larded with philosophical verbiage, and hope they fell for it?

Is that really all there is to it?

DA 

2009-12-24
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi, I suggested that nothing is ever refuted in philosophy and I was giving an explanation as to why, even if no position is refuted, some positions are abandoned. I hold that the idea of "progress" in philosophy has no meaning, there is scientific progress and it has an impact in philosophy, causing the abandonment of some doctrines too closely connected with empirically disconfirmed theories.

Philosophy does not need to be saved, its legitimacy is not conencted to its making progresses. You seem to think that there can be no justification of an intellectual activity, if there is no progress in it. The French state is opposed to that anglo-saxon view. I live in France, let me tell you why the state finances philosophy courses and why they are compulsory in high-schools and at the Baccalaureat exam: because philosophy develops critical thinking, which is vital to any democracy. Philosophy is seen as a central part of the European and French culture, and it is studied mostly from a historical perspective. We don't give a damn here about the "state of the art" in this or that domain, we study classics and we think that good philosophy has perennial value. We study classics in order to learn from them how to think independently, how to problematize, how to critically use our reason. 

Playing golf does not contribute to make someone a citizen, your analogy is ridiculous. The state has interest to grow citizens, engaged to defend the republican values: equality, liberty, fraternity, laicity. This is why philosophy is important: because it educates in the spirit of the plurality of opinions and of civilized, reasoned discussion of these opinions; because its study means the direct vindication of our culture and history. The philosophy has paideic virtues, and the teaching of philosophy in schools serves the public interest.

The crazy idea of a "philosophical progress" has nothing to do with it, at least not in France and in other countries that follow the French model.

I firmly maintain what I said about why philosophical positions are abandoned, when there are no knock-down arguments against them. Why do you think absolute idealism is not upheld anymore (not since Sprigge died)? Because influential philosophical revues do not publish articles on the subject, major publishing houses do not publish books on the subject, philosophy departments do not hire absolute idealists. Being an absolute idealist contributes only to your marginalisation as a philosopher and definitely stands in the way of your professional progress. Each time you deal with unfashionable subjects you will find that your papers are not published. How can you make an academic career without publishing?

J

2009-12-24
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Hi Joachim

You've introduced some ideas here that weren't in your previous post ("philosophy develops critical thinking";  it defends "republican values" etc). I was responding to your previous post which seemed to imply that there was really no point philosophy beyond "[helping] a philosopher to advance in his career or to improve his professional reputation".   I seem to have misunderstood you. Sorry.

I do not think by the way that " there can be no justification of an intellectual activity, if there is no progress in it." 

Nevertheless, justifying philosophy is not all that easy, is it? I know the "critical thinking" argument is used a lot, but I imagine someone might easily respond that that can be achieved through the study of literature or the social sciences. And I can also imagine a bean-counting bureaucrat saying "What hard evidence have you got that studying the fine points of say Kant or Heidegger improves critical thinking?" (Some might argue that it decreases it! Have you ever heard the saying "You would have to be a philosopher to believe that!") 

I am by no means anti-philosophy. Quite the contrary. But I don't think the question you raise is an easy one to answer. (I think it is particularly hard to answer in the case of "analytic" philosophy but I'll leave that issue for now.)

Joyeux Noel

DA 

2009-12-26
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Derek Allan
No progress in the 'Is there any philosophical progress?' debate I see. Meanwhile, elsewhere in philosophy, there's progress aplenty...

2009-12-26
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Sam Coleman
Well, that's good news. Where is it happening, Sam"

DA

2009-12-27
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Derek Allan
I notice that people are abandoning the phenomenal concept strategy for example. I call that progress! (as opposed to the conclusive solution of a major philosophical problem).

2009-12-27
Major philosophical issues that have been conclusively solved?
Reply to Sam Coleman
Well, I can't really comment on that, Sam. I find this whole area of (analytic) philosophy so dismal and uninspiring that I avoid it, except in a general, impressionistic sense.

Impressionistically, it strikes me - this is going to be a bit harsh, I'm sorry - as shallow, even naive. It always reads to me like a kind of glorified folk psychology: people "introspecting" (whatever that means exactly - and that question is seldom asked) and treating their introspective "findings" as a reliable - even "scientific"! - basis for an understanding of human experience/consciousness. As if human experience/consciousness were like a calm, entirely transparent mill pond and one only had to "look into" it to see everything that needed to be seen, and understand everything that needed to be understood. The whole operation is then thickly larded with various bits of high-sounding philosophical jargon ("phenomenal" this, that and the other) which makes it sound impressive and scientific; but to my mind that is so much whistling in the wind.

My apologies if this sounds over the top. This area of philosophy really irritates me. I see the question of human consciousness as probably the most mysterious and elusive of all. (Even saying what we mean by it is enormously difficult.)  It's question that, to my mind, crosses the boundaries of philosophy, art (in the broad sense) and maybe psychology. And it's not simply a question of cognition and perception (which it is so often treated as) but, much more deeply, of what being human is all about. So when I see it treated with the degree of narrowness and complacency I find in so much of analytic philosophy's discussion of the topic, I tend not to respond well.

My apologies again if this sounds harsh. And of course, it's the philosophical approach in general I am criticizing, not anyone in particular.

DA