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Psychology meets philosophy: knowledge, reality, morality, meaning

Eleven Dogmas of Analytic Philosophy

Natural philosophy uses scientific evidence, not intuitions.

Philosophy is the attempt to answer fundamental questions about the nature of knowledge, reality, and morals. In North America and the United Kingdom, the dominant approach is analytic philosophy, which attempts to use the study of language and logic to analyze concepts that are important for the study of knowledge (epistemology), reality (metaphysics), and morality (ethics).

I prefer an alternative approach to philosophy that is much more closely tied to scientific investigations. This approach is sometimes called “naturalistic philosophy” or “philosophy naturalized”, but I like the more concise term natural philosophy. Before the words “science” and “scientist” became common in the nineteenth century, researchers such as Newton described what they did as natural philosophy. I propose to revive this term to cover a method that ties epistemology and ethics closely to the cognitive sciences, and ties metaphysics closely to physics and other sciences.

To clarify the difference between analytic and natural philosophy, here is a list of 11 dogmas that I think are often assumed by analytic philosophers but rarely explicitly defended. For each, I state the natural alternative.

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1. The best approach to philosophy is conceptual analysis using formal logic or ordinary language. Natural alternative: investigate concepts and theories developed in relevant sciences. Philosophy is theory construction, not conceptual analysis.

2. Philosophy is conservative, analyzing existing concepts. Natural alternative: instead of assuming that people’s concepts are correct, develop new and improved concepts embedded in explanatory theories.  The point is not to interpret concepts, but to change them.  

3. People’s intuitions are evidence for philosophical conclusions. Natural alternative: evaluate intuitions critically to determine their psychological causes, which are often more tied to prejudices and errors than truth. Don't trust your intuitions.  

4. Thought experiments are a good way of generating intuitive evidence. Natural alternative: use thought experiments only as a way of generating hypotheses, and evaluate hypotheses objectively by considering evidence derived from systematic observations and controlled experiments.

5. People are rational. Natural alternative: recognize that people are commonly ignorant of physics, biology, and psychology, and that their beliefs and concepts are often incoherent. Philosophy needs to educate people, not excuse them.

6. Inferences are based on arguments. Natural alternative: whereas arguments are serial and linguistic, inferences operate as parallel neural processes that can use representations that involve visual and other modalities. Critical thinking is different from informal logic. 

7. Reason is separate from emotion. Natural alternative: appreciate that brains function by virtue of interconnections between cognitive and emotional processing that are usually valuable, but can sometimes lead to error. The best thinking is both cognitive and emotional.  

8. There are necessary truths that apply to all possible worlds. Natural alternative: recognize that it is hard enough to figure out what is true in this world, and there is no reliable way of establishing what is true in all possible worlds, so abandon the concept of necessity.

9. Thoughts are propositional attitudes. Natural alternative: instead of considering thoughts to be abstract relations between abstract selves and abstract sentence-like entities, accept the rapidly increasing evidence that thoughts are brain processes.

10. The structure of logic reveals the nature of reality. Natural alternative: appreciate that formal logic is only one of many areas of mathematics relevant to determining the fundamental nature of reality. Then we can avoid the error of inferring metaphysical conclusions from the logic of the day, as Wittgenstein did with propositional logic, Quine did with predicate logic, and Kripke and Lewis did with modal logic.

11. Naturalism cannot address normative issues about what people ought to do in epistemology and ethics. Natural alternative: adopt a normative procedure that empirically evaluates the extent to which different practices achieve the goals of knowledge and morality.

What I call natural philosophy isn’t new, for it has been practiced in various ways by such distinguished philosophers as Thales, Aristotle, Epicurus, Lucretius, Bacon, Locke, Hume, Mill, Peirce, Russell (after 1920), Dewey, Quine (after 1950), and Kuhn. There are also many contemporary philosophers making progress on problems concerning the nature of knowledge, reality and ethics, without succumbing to the dogmas of analytic philosophy. Philosophy needs to be extraverted, directing its attention to real world problems and relevant scientific findings, not introverted and concerned only with its own history and techniques.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul Thagard is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life.

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