Why philosophy does not prove anything?
“In philosophy there are no proofs; there are not theorems; and there are no questions which can be decided, Yes or No. In saying that there are no proofs I do not mean to say that there are no arguments. Arguments certainly there are, and first-rate philosophers are recognized by the originality of their arguments; only these do not work in the sort of way they do in mathematics or in the sciences.”
Says Waismann in the beginning of his paper titled “How I see philosophy.” It is not coincidence that Waismann’s title contains an “I” statement. Philosophy, according to Waismann is a personal judgment. A philosopher builds a case. You are like a juror who will arrive at a verdict after watching the parade of confronting philosophers. You don’t drive in a “deductive highway” to reach a rational decision, but you have to use discernment.
“No philosophic argument ends with Q.E.D. However forceful, it never forces. There is no bullying in philosophy, neither with the stick of logic nor with the stick of language,” claims Waismann. Obviously, neither with the stick of experiment, nor with the stick of eternal punishment!
Philosophy does not use deductive arguments. Deductive arguments are limited with self-evident premises. It is constrained, since it leaves out experimentation and sensory information. It is limited on what we know. You are confined with what is defined. Logic, geometry, math is not sufficient to explain many phenomena surrounding us. The realm of philosophy, however, is far beyond the reach of deductive arguments.
Philosophy doe s not use inductive arguments. Though induction cannot really prove anything, it is a useful and a practical tool of sciences. After a “satisfactory” number of observations or experimentation a scientist can make generalizations. Science employs both deduction and induction. Science predicts or concludes after certain observations. Philosophy, however, is a self-claimed supervisor. To some it is a jealous nitpicker.
Philosopher is a trouble maker who dares to ask the most dangerous questions, such as how fertile is deduction, or how reliable is induction. He may use deduction to cast doubt on induction, or he may use induction to show how infertile is the deduction. He may even give up from both of them and appeal to “intuition” or just create “another faculty” to make his case.
Philosopher is an omnivorous intellectual virus who challenges the limits of time and space, and sometimes the limits of brain cells. He is interested with the questions where science or logic has given up, or never thought about them. Philosopher is a wanderer in the dark mazes of arguments with his personal compass and flashlight. If you want to follow his maze you may reach the same exit without feeling any pitfalls or obstacles or dead ends. But if you don’t want to follow his maze, you may see nothing but all dead ends, flaws and pitfalls.
Philosopher is sometimes brave enough to acknowledge his incompetence, and declare the dead end, and sometimes naive enough to declare his discovery of truth. Philosophers can be seen like knights with plastic swords. As intellectual entertainers, or brain-wrestlers… Ironically, many philosophers believe that they swing the sharpest sword in the universe.
Philosopher infers, presumes, reasons, and speculates. He (rarely she!) makes assumptions and seeks justifications for them. He may even try to justify his justifications. None of his arguments can be considered as proof, since very few of his audiences will share exactly the same prejudices, psychology, motivations and knowledge that contribute to the construction of his argument.
Philosopher cannot convince a hard-core disbeliever; but can confirm and revitalize a believer. Philosopher can plant the seeds of doubt in minds of his opponents. Indeed, philosophers are very good in exposing the weakness of their counter-arguments. They build their castles on the cracks of rival philosophers.
How can we define “a philosophical argument”? If we claim that all arguments that are not capable of being proved or refuted is philosophical, then we have a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are, indeed, some philosophic arguments that are resolved. For instance, no one is seriously considering the ancient arguments on the existence of “ether.” No one is seriously considering the arguments on whether animals feel pain or not. Nevertheless, most of the philosophic arguments are surviving for thousands of years without any solution, face to face with their counter arguments.
The reasons why ph
ilosophical arguments can’t provide proofs like mathematics or exact sciences can be listed below:
- Philosophical issues have a very complex character and they can be influenced by numerous factors ranging from childhood experiences to social environment, from political or personal agendas to religious dogmas. For instance, any ethical argument will be interpreted and perceived in different contexts by every audience depending on their experience, upbringings, preconceived values, interests, etc. The philosophical arguments, by nature, are not authoritative, but demanding. They demand a voluntary intellectual reflection and a positive attitude from their audience to follow their constructed intellectual highway. A slight distraction or a different intention can take the audience to one of the many exits before reaching to the desired conclusion.
- The constraining, vague and deceptive character of natural languages can complicate the simplest arguments.
- The philosophical arguments on “metaphysical” issues are extraordinary claims and they require extraordinary evidences which cannot be found in ordinary nature of objective arguments.
- Many philosophers cannot avoid letting their hidden premises, emotions, passions and assumptions creep in their arguments. An indisputable argument according to Descartes can be considered a baseless argument by the one who does not share those hidden ingredients.
- Many of the philosophical issues do not require a single true answer. They are not black or white. We can describe them as “the more appropriate argument” rather than “the true” argument. Furthermore, “the more appropriate” can change depending on time, place, conditions, societies and even persons.
- Scientific theories are not proved by rational arguments but by observations. Scientific theories predict and we evaluate them according to their predictive power. But, we cannot observe or rank most of the philosophical arguments by their predictive power; they do not predict but they reach verdicts.
The most essential feature of philosophy: vision
“At the heart of any philosophy worth the name is vision, and it is from there it springs and takes its visible shape. When I say ‘vision’ I mean it: I do not want to romanticize. What is characteristic of philosophy is the piercing of that dead crust of tradition and convention, the breaking of those fetters which bind us to inherited preconceptions, so as to attain a new and broader way of looking at things.” (Frederick Waismann, How I see philosophy)
Philosophic arguments enrich our vision and suggest different alternatives. For instance, let’s assume several philosophers riding in a buss hearing someone say “There are 38 persons in this bus.” They can refute this statement with different arguments. One may claim, “if we consider 6 month-old fetuses as persons there are 39 persons in this bus, since there is a pregnant lady here.” Another may add, “if we consider animals as persons there are 40 persons here, since the blind man has a dog.” One may interrupt, “if we are really referring to persons, not to bodies, then there are probably more than 40 persons on this bus, since some of the passengers may have multiple personalities.” This argument may continue. In the end:
- The amount of money paid for tickets more likely won’t change.
- People will learn how inexact and unreliable is their daily language.
- The lawyers will try to find a way to exploit this tricky language.
- The debate on abortion will focus on the definition of ‘personhood.’
- Some of the passengers will have a feast of intellectual entertainment, while some others will plug their ears.
I won’t liken philosophers to a gang of blind wannabe zoologists trying to describe an elephant by touching her body from different positions. Philosophers develop and create new perspectives for old problems. As a by-product of their zeal they create many new problems. Nevertheless, each argument, by opening another peephole from a different direction contributes to enlarge our vision. Occasionally, one of those peepholes changes the whole picture.
It was the vision of Copernicus and Galileo, not their observations that put the Sun in the center of Solar system. Who can claim that the Copernican revolution was merely the result of scientific observations and deductive arguments? If Copernicus did not have the vision, he could easily follow Ptalamos. The Copernican revolution was a paradigm shift, a new vision, before the hard evidence was produced. Indeed, this vision motivated him and Galileo to look for evidence. It was the vision of Einstein that suggested the general relativity and questioned the Newton’s law.
In a particular philosophic argument, vision is always prior to the argument. I fully agree with Waismann that “every great philosopher was led by a sense of vision. . . . arguments come only afterwards to lend support to what he has seen. . . . In this sense, philosophy is the retesting of the standards.”
Traps of language
“People are deeply imbedded in philosophical, i.e., grammatical confusion. And to free them from these presupposes pulling them out of the immensely manifold connections they are caught up in. One must so to speak regroup their entire language.–But this language came about // developed // as it did because people had–and have–the inclination to think in this way. . . . Language contains the same traps for everyone; the immense network of well-kept // passable // false paths. . . .
“One keeps hearing the remark that philosophy really makes no progress, that the same philosophical problems that had occupied the Greeks are still occupying us. But those who say that don’t understand the reason it is // must be // so. The reason is that our language has remained the same and seduces us into asking the same questions over and over. As long as there is a verb ‘to be’ which seems to function like ‘to eat’ and ‘to drink’, as long as there are adjectives like ‘identical’, ‘true’, ‘false’, ‘possible’, as long as one talks about a flow of time and an expanse of space, etc., etc., humans will continue to bump up against the same mysterious difficulties, and stare at something that no explanation seems able to remove.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophy, Contemporary Approaches to Philosophy, p. 134, 135.)
If logical argument is likened to pure water, the natural language will be its container. The shape and color of the container may create superficial attributes for water, such as being green or cylinder. Our previous experiences allow us to distinguish the attributes of water from the attributes of its container. We can do this easily since we can put the same water into different containers with different colors and shapes. We may even be able to observe water without the interference of any container. We will know water as a transparent liquid, since light can pass through it. However, our visual information of water will always be dependent on the nature of light and the interpretation of our brain.
In scientific experiments, especially the ones that involve atoms and subatomic particles we are constrained with our tools. They influence both the precision and the outcome of our experiments. We cannot observe an atom without the existential interference of electronic microscope. We cannot observe any particle smaller than electrons, since light, our best medium won’t be able to convey this information to us. Similarly, we cannot discuss any philosophical issue without the interference of the medium, that is, language.
Language is shaped throughout human history which carries the flavor of collective wisdom and knowledge, misinformation and ignorance as well. Language can create many traps in front of philosophic arguments: some obvious, some very difficult to detect, and some impossible to eliminate. Ironically, language itself is the real cause of some arguments. Hence, we have developed a new discipline, philosophy of language, to assess the role and function of language in our thought process and expression. Though the philosophy of language has created a myriad of new arguments, its “linguistic technique in our day has put an end to the great speculative systems of the past” says Waismann, in his paper ‘How I See Philosophy.’
Wittgenstein also agrees with Waismann on the importance of critical attitude towards language. He lists some problematic verbs, adjectives and expressions as they are the defective genes of our language, and holds them responsible for ‘mysterious difficulties.’
Though I disagree with Waismann in particular (on some of his suspect words, such as ‘true’, ‘false’), I agree with him in general. Let’s reflect on the following example to see how languages can create false or phantasmagoric entities:
If your language allows you to use the first person possessive pronoun as in “My hands, my legs, my eyes, my ears, my nose, my brain . . . “then you will most likely be puzzled by the question “who am I?” From this question, you may incline to consider the existence of an “I,” a soul, independent of “your” physical body.
It may be simple to eradicate the “mysterious difficulty” that originates from this grammatical quirk by trying the same expressions for non-living things: “car’s window, car’s tire, car’s steer, car’s engine . . . “If you won’t be puzzled by the question “what is car?” then you will be advised not to be puzzled on similar question about yourself. But, if you join Plato, then it will be difficult, if not impossible, to convince you.
PS: Written in 1993 for an undergrad philosophy class at the University of Arizona.