Can We Solve the Problems of Philosophy?


Can We Solve the Problems of Philosophy?


Philosophy consists of a set of problems that are particularly difficult to resolve. There are two aspects to this difficulty: first, we can’t find solutions that every reasonable person should be able to accept; second, the solutions offered always seem quite inadequate, i.e. we seem forced to consider purported solutions that stretch credulity. How do we avoid being forced into unpalatable positions? This meta-problem takes a characteristic form: either we accept a reductive deflationary position or we accept a kind of inflationary anti-naturalist position. Take the problem of universals: either we accept nominalism or we accept platonic realism—the former being implausibly reductive, the latter startlingly reifying. At the most extreme we are forced to choose between an eliminative position and a supernatural position: there are no such things as universals or they are occupants of a quasi-divine abstract eternal heaven. So not only can we not decide between the various options, but the options themselves are distinctly unappealing. We would like to find something both inarguably correct and not intrinsically absurd (or at least hard to believe), but the field of options is difficult to narrow down and it is populated with non-starters. Why do we find ourselves in this predicament? Can we get out of it? In the case of cosmology, say, we have a choice between a steady state theory and an originating event theory: the choice between them may be difficult to make, but at least the options are perfectly feasible—each theory might be true. But in the case of the problem of universals both options seem inherently unsatisfactory, if not preposterous: how could the universal whiteness(say) be just a word, and how could it be an abstract entity floating in an otherworldly realm? In philosophy it often seems that we are condemned to be unable to choose between theories and that the theories available are none too appealing in themselves. It’s like wanting to buy a used car and being confronted by a bunch of lemons between which we can only dither.

            I would list the following as exhibiting this general character (in addition to the problem of universals): the problem of the nature of ordinary objects, the problem of what constitutes matter, the problems of causality, space, time, necessity, natural law, consciousness, the will, perception, knowledge, the a priori, the self, meaning, moral values, and numbers. The list is not exhaustive, though it is representative: each of these raises profoundly difficult questions, and there is a feeling that nothing we know of adequately answers these questions; indeed, the proposed answers strike us as conspicuously wide of the mark (though fervently defended by their adherents). I could go through each topic in turn and explain how the dialectic plays out, but I won’t; I will merely note that the usual theories typically fail to measure up to the problem they are designed to solve. They tend to alternate between the overly reductive and the vaguely mystical. For example, we have linguistic theories of necessity and possible world realism; we have constant conjunction theories of causation and magical power theories; we have materialism and dualism about the mind; and so on. The arguments between these eternally rage, and what is contended for seems hopeless from the start (prima facie ridiculous or at least pretty far fetched). So the problems of philosophy appear to exist in an uncomfortable intellectual space—recalcitrant to the mind and inherently maddening. Yet we can’t just let them go: for the questions strike us as real, reasons can be given for favoring certain positions, and there must be some truth of the matter. It is just that we don’t seem to be able to get where we would like to be: with a solid understanding of what we are talking about and a set of considerations that decisively settle the matter. We seem stuck, permanently lost.

            I would like to venture a hypothesis (and I choose these words carefully): a hypothesis about why the problems are so resistant to solution and about why the normal range of proposed solutions is so jejune. I will first note a certain tendency of thought: we are apt to dwell on two aspects of the phenomenon or concept in which we are interested, viz. its appearance and its correlates. So consider causation: we examine how it strikes the senses and what it is correlated with; and it does not appear as a mode of necessitation and is correlated with constant conjunctions. Or consciousness: it appears in a certain way to our introspective sense and is correlated with brain states. And so on through the list. These two aspects form the shape of the solutions we come up with, either separately or together. We strive for a theory that explains the nature of what we are interested in in terms confined to appearances and correlates—how it affects our sensibility and how it relates to other associated things. Thus we try to develop a theory of consciousness that draws upon its subjective character and its neural correlates; or we approach moral value with how it is represented in the mind and how it is correlated with actions and language; or we consider the perceptual appearance of objects and their causal and functional properties. Certainly the things in question have a phenomenology (a presence in the human mind) and they also have correlates of various kinds (relations to other things); but it is a question whether this is all they have. Might not these two aspects fail to include some essential fact about the thing being studied? Might this ignored aspect be vital to understanding that thing? Might it be the key to uncovering the solution to the problems that so trouble us? To be concrete, might not pain (say) have a nature that goes beyond its subjective appearance and its observed bodily correlates? This suggests the hypothesis I have in mind, which I will call elusivism. The hypothesis is akin to mysterianism but it stresses the idea that the problematic thing actively eludes our powers of comprehension. It isn’t just that we are cognitively limited; rather, some things have a nature that defies the specific type of intelligence that we contingently possess. For example, universals have a nature that refuses to be represented as a type of perceptual object—either of the five senses or of the faculty of intellectual intuition. Recoiling from the idea that universals can be sensed like particulars, we picture them as subsisting in a type of space in which they might be glimpsed by our mind’s eye; but in fact they are not of a nature that permits any such apprehension. They are radically non-perceptual; it is not that they require a specific type of sense that might be supplied by the human mind. The way they enter our consciousness, then, is inadequate to capture their elusive nature—which is why we have so much trouble understanding them. Their essence precludes them from locking with our given mental faculties, save in a glancing and indirect way. They slip between our mental fingers (some objects are manually elusive).

            This is hard to get one’s mind round for obvious reasons. The elusiveness hypothesis asks us to accept that we literally don’t know what we are talking about, though we do have knowledge of appearances and correlates.  [1]But of course we can’t conceive what we can’t conceive, so it’s hard to accept the truth of the hypothesis; still it may be true. If we could grasp what these things really are, we would not be prone to taking absurd theories seriously; but we are confined to phenomenology and correlates. It may of course be that one of the standard theories is closer to the truth than the others, and may indeed be essentially correct, but that we don’t have the conceptual resources with which to understand this theory properly. Realism about universals may be perfectly true, but our mode of conceiving of them leaves us baffled and troubled by the theory (rather as consciousness might actually be a brain state but we are unable to make this idea intelligible to ourselves). Things can be true without being comprehensibly true. The problem is that our ideas of things might not be adequate to those things (as seventeenth century theorists put it). So we are prone to manufacture bad theories of the things in question and unable to find the right theory. Reality is elusive, so philosophy has the shape it has. It isn’t because of intellectual laziness, or the primitive state of science, or misleading ordinary language, or a lack of imagination, or religious holdovers; it’s because reality is elusive relative to our epistemic faculties. We tend to substitute what we do know for what we don’t know (and need to know)—hence the reliance on appearance and correlates—but this strategy doesn’t solve the problems. Ideally we would immediately grasp what all these problematic things essentially are, and then we would know the truth about philosophical questions; but that is a fantasy exemplified only by God. Isn’t it amazing that we don’t even know whether universals are abstract, mental or linguistic? How inadequate can our supposed knowledge of them be! Our grasp of their nature must be weak to non-existent. We can’t even decide whether ordinary objects are in the mind or outside it—that’s how inadequate our knowledge of them is. It is as if we don’t know the first thing about a lot of things. Of course, there is no reason why we should from a biological point of view: our knowledge is originally practical and species-specific, not designed to answer deep questions about reality. Nor are our concepts open repositories of complete information about their referents, but are more like pragmatic pointers with a practical purpose: hence the existence of philosophical problems, according to the elusivist hypothesis. Still, we can least solve the problem of how to avoid unpalatable theories: we can relax in the knowledge that this is an artifact of our contingent ignorance. We don’t have to believe any of them, or if we do we don’t have to accept that they meet certain conditions of intelligibility. We can be complete agnostics or tentative believers—not bad faith dogmatists for one position or another. We can thus solve the problem of forced philosophical belief, which is not nothing. We are not compelled to believe what we can’t in good conscience believe. We can believe that the solution lies outside of the range of options our minds are capable of generating. We are spared the thought that the world is inherently absurd. That is progress of a kind.  [2]  


  [1] The elusiveness hypothesis comes in various strengths: from the weak variant that claims only present lack of knowledge to the strong variant that insists on terminal ignorance, with positions in between. I won’t discuss which to prefer except to note that philosophical problems seem extremely resistant to solution, thus favoring the strong version.

  [2] This paper continues the theme of my Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Enquiry (1993) with some terminological innovations and an extension of scope.

4 replies
  1. Nirmalo
    Nirmalo says:

    Colin McGinn: “Der Gedanke, dass die Welt von Natur aus absurd ist, bleibt uns erspart. Das ist eine Art Fortschritt.”

    Die Welt ist absurd. Diese Einsicht bleibt uns nicht erspart.

    Wenn wir “die Welt” durch den Verstand betrachten, erscheint sie uns absurd. Er kommt zu keinem anderen Schluß.

    Im Gegenteil zur Welt… will der logisch funktionierende Verstand zu einem Schluß kommen. So entstehen die mind-made-problems, die nicht auf der selben Ebene (Verstand) gelöst werden können.

    Die Welt (hier verstanden als “alles was ist”) funktioniert nicht linear wie eine Dampfmaschine. Sie ist komplex, in jedem einzelnen Bereich, in jedem Atom und… darüber hinaus.

    Nur einen winzig kleinen Teil der Welt zu “sehen” ist uns möglich. Nur das, was uns die Sinne und der ihre Impulse interpretierende funktionale Teil des Verstandes anbieten.

    Der (vermeintlich) rational funktionierende Teil des Verstandes macht – als Problem-Generator – sein eigenes Fass auf.

    Colin McGinn: “Können wir das Geist-Körper-Problem lösen?”

    Nein, können wir nicht.

    Ein Problem, das nicht wirklich existiert,
    kann auch nicht wirklich gelöst werden.

    Der Verstand hat seine unbestrittenen Fähigkeiten, aber gleichzeitig ist er so “dumm”, daß er die Grenzen seiner Möglichkeiten nicht erkennen kann.

    Der Verstand liebt “Probleme”, an denen er sich ad infinitum verbeißen kann.

    Weisheit ist eine
    andere Kategorie.

  2. Nirmalo
    Nirmalo says:

    Colin McGinn: „…Fähigkeit der intellektuellen Intuition”

    So etwas gibt es nicht.

    ◾ Ja, es gibt den Intellekt, den logisch funktionierenden Verstand.
    ◾ Ja, es gibt das Phänomen der Intuition, welche aber weder intellektuell, noch wissenschaftlich angegangen werden kann, weil sie größer ist als unsere kognitiven Fertigkeiten, die schnell an ihre Grenzen stoßen.

    Der Intellektuell agiert horizontal.
    Die Intuition erreicht uns vertikal.

    Der Intellekt besorgt die Nachbereitung, nachdem die Intuition… längst geschah.

    Das Denken benötigt einiges an Aktivität.
    Die Intuition benötigt unsere Rezeptivität.

    Eine intellektuelle Intuition gibt es nicht.

    Colin McGinn: „So versuchen wir, eine Bewusstseinstheorie zu entwickeln”

    Wir können uns des Bewußtseins bewußt sein, aber wir können uns ihm nicht auf theoretischem oder physischem Weg nähern.

    Wenn Sie sich des Bewußtseins bewußt sind, wissen Sie das.

    Bewußtsein ist – aber nicht objektivierbar.


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