Data in Philosophy
Every academic subject requires a source of data. Without data a subject cannot thrive, survive, or even exist. History requires written documents of the past. Archeology requires preserved artifacts. Microbiology requires data from microscopes. Anatomy requires dissections. Atomic physics requires data from supercolliders. Astronomy requires light readings from telescopes. Zoology requires observations from the field. Psychology requires behavioral data from experiments. Chemistry requires records of chemical reactions. Paleontology requires fossils. Certain sorts of data fit the subject in question and allow it to develop and grow. Practitioners have to learn how to collect and interpret data. Theories have to be tailored to data. Some potential subjects don’t exist because there is no data to support and nourish them—there is no celestial zoology or anthropology. Data is a sine qua non. But what kind of data is suitable for philosophy? It can’t be without data of any kind, because then it would not be at all. Here matters turn controversial: it is a contentious question. Some say that the data are human experiences introspectively apprehended (phenomenology). Some say the data are intuitions about concepts (intuitionism). Some say the data are the results of thought experiments (conceptual analysts). Some say the data are the results of the several sciences (scientism). Some say the data are surveys of people’s opinions (experimental philosophy). Some say the data derive from the study of ordinary language (the linguistic turn). Some have said (though rarely today) that religious revelation affords the data of philosophical reflection (fundamentalism). Some (especially today) have even insisted that the data of the brain are the appropriate data for philosophy (neuro-philosophy). There is no consensus on what kind of data are right for philosophy; indeed, there is vigorous opposition to some of these schools. Some people prefer a pluralist perspective (I include myself in this category), looking for data anywhere they can find it (though I draw the line at religion and brain science). Psychology is the closest analogue to philosophy: since its inception as a science debate has raged as to what the right source of data should be—introspective data, behavioral data, cerebral data, computer data. This is why psychology has never been able to free itself of the taint of philosophy (its progenitor and prototype). But the real problem in philosophy is not lack of consensus about what data are kosher; it is that no data (so called) really add up to data—a solid foundation with a clear connection to philosophical theories. The problem is data paucity, data inadequacy, data ineptitude. In the case of astronomy, we are lucky that light from the distant universe reaches planet Earth relatively unimpeded (but those pesky clouds!), because we have little else to go on, and light data is quite impoverished. Imagine if we had to rely on sounds from outer space, or the occasional visit from a meteor, or sensations of heat: astronomy would hardly be possible. It would exist in a primitive state, barely making any progress, sorely lacking in consensus—a bit like philosophy, in fact. We want to know the answers to philosophical questions—the problem of free will, the mind-body problem, the objectivity or otherwise of ethics—but our data base provides little guidance. We examine our language, our inner experience, the relevant sciences, the results of thought experiments—and we just don’t make much progress. The data underdetermine the theories; worse, they don’t seem to make proper contact with the theories. J.L. Austin thought that if he just assembled enough data from the use of ordinary language the proper theory would reveal itself, but that hope was forlorn—the correct theory remained elusive. Nor does knowing all the science help much. Et cetera. We are like astronomers reduced to listening and feeling. In short, the data of philosophy are a pretty sorry bunch when it comes to solving the problems that they are wheeled in to solve (they may be rich and fascinating in themselves). They can never be cited as settling an issue, as the data of the sciences often are. The putative data are hardly dataat all, only hints or clues or bits of decoration. I don’t mean to denigrate philosophy in saying this—the questions are real and we have to go on what we have to go on—but the relation between data and theory is depressingly tenuous. We are operating in an evidential void, in effect. Nothing in our data base can decideanything, except perhaps some elementary conceptual questions (e.g., whether knowledge is true justified belief). Sure, we have arguments, some of them very good, and objections, some quite devastating, but we don’t have anything analogous to the data of other academic subjects. If we had no data at all, things would be a lot worse; it would be like trying to do extra-terrestrial zoology or artifact-free archeology. We do have something to go on—in fact, quite a lot—but it just isn’t all that probative, all that datum-like. It’s a bit like trying to learn about the sun just by feeling the warmth of its rays. Or not like that, because at least the sun’s rays are systematically connected to its actual nature. It’s more that the data—say, ordinary language—is disconnected from the nature of the thing that puzzles us—free will, consciousness, moral rightness. Words will only tell us so much about the things they refer to (imagine an ordinary language chemistry!). The alleged data don’t make close enough contact with the thing that puzzles us. Our subject matter seems out of reach of the data we marshal to shed light on it. What we want to do is gaze directly at the facts and see what their nature is, but that isn’t feasible, so we resort to remote “data”. We can’t tell what numbers are simply by looking at them, so we resort to indirect support for our hunches deriving from loosely associated phenomena—numerals, mental acts of calculation, feelings in the belly (the number 2 feels real). We are data deprived; data bereft. Our supposed data is hardly worthy of the name. The OED defines “datum” as “a piece of information” and “an assumption or premise from which inferences may be drawn”: but the data of philosophy don’t inform us of the philosophical truth, nor do they constitute premises from which philosophical truths can be deduced (or even induced). At best, they may be suggestive or corroborative, things we can brandish in philosophical debate, but they can’t be put into a graph or entered in a ledger as statistical facts raising the probability of a philosophical hypothesis (there is no philosophical t-test). That is why there is so much disagreement about the nature of philosophical data: it’s because nothing we have at our disposal constitutes data in the normal sense (if it did, we would all welcome it with open arms). Philosophy is not a data-driven science (or even a data-driven humanity like history or Russian literature). So, we hover in a strange no-man’s land methodologically: we are not data-independent (whatever that might be) but we are also not data-driven—we are only data-stimulated, data-inspired. We find various facts philosophically suggestive, but these facts don’t convert into something solidly datum-like. Hence the permanent possibility of philosophical ignorance (like the plight of the would-be astronomers deprived of light as a source of information). No data, no knowledge.
 Philosophers don’t proceed by first presenting their data and then drawing inferences from it. They start with a theory that appeals to them and then hunt around for some data that seems to support it—from language, from science, from introspection. The data is never viewed as definitive or even probability-raising (in the statistical sense). Nor do they accumulate more data over time like a typical scientist, hoping to edge a theory into the acceptance zone. The role of data in philosophy is quite different, more like a seduction than a deduction—designed to entice not overwhelm. The social psychology of the use of data in philosophy would be worth studying.