Truth and Progress in Philosophy

06 June 2017

One of the things that students find frustrating about philosophy is that they don’t get definitive answers to the sorts of questions that philosophers ask. These students aren’t frustrated because philosophy doesn’t give them any answers. They’re frustrated because it gives them too many answers. For example, I teach a course on freedom and determinism in which the students learn (a) that the macroscopic universe is deterministic, so free will doesn’t exist, (b) that we can make choices that aren’t determined by prior events, so free will exists, or (c) that the macroscopic universe is totally deterministic, and we have free will. When students ask me which of these theories is true, I can’t tell them.  

If this were a scientific issue rather than a philosophical one, there would be a way to decide which of these views is the right one. All you’d have to do is gather the evidence, weigh it up, and see which theory matches the facts. But things work very different in philosophy. It’s not that we can’t lay our hands on the evidence that would allow us to see which if any of our theories is the right one. It’s that there isn’t any evidence for us to lay our hands on.  

The philosopher Peter van Inwagen nailed it when he wrote, “Disagreement in philosophy is pervasive and irresoluble. There is almost no thesis in philosophy about which philosophers agree.” Sure, there’s disagreement in science—especially at its cutting edge—but “there is a large body of settled, usable, uncontroversial theory and of measurements known to be accurate within limits that have been specified. The cutting edge of philosophy, however, is pretty much the whole of it.”

I’ll come right out and say that I DON’T think that philosophical disagreement is a problem—or, to put the point a bit more precisely, I don’t think that it’s a problem in quite the same way that many other philosophers seem to think that it’s a problem. And on the flip side, I don’t think that it’s NOT a problem in the way that lots of philosophers think that it’s not a problem either. I’m going spend the rest of this essay explaining why.

The question of whether philosophical disagreement is a problem is tied up with a nearby question: the question of whether philosophy has made any progress over the last twenty-five hundred years or so. Let’s go back to van Inwagen’s contrast between philosophy and science. Nobody can seriously doubt that science has made huge strides over the centuries. However interesting they might be historically, no present-day scientist thinks that texts from hundreds or thousands of years ago give us any insight into the workings of the physical world. Contrast this with those philosophers who take the work of guys like Plato dead seriously—not just out of historical interest, but because they think that Plato (or some other “giant” of philosophy) got the facts right.

Van Inwagen contrasts the existence of settled science—established knowledge that every scientifically literate person accepts—with the chaotic disarray of philosophical opinion. This comparison isn’t entirely right. Although it might not be obvious to outsiders, there is such a thing as (more or less) settled philosophy—claims that the majority of philosophers accept as true. But so-called settled philosophy isn’t on a par with settled science. Scientific controversies are settled by evidence. Chemists hold that chlorine atoms have seventeen protons because that’s what the evidence shows, Q.E.D. Even in the wilder, more unsettled regions of science—the cutting edge where evidence is thin and opinions are rampant—investigators look for evidence to settle controversies. That’s not to say that scientists are never pig-headed about their views, it’s just to say that they have methods for bringing opinions, sometimes kicking and screaming, before the tribunal of evidence.

Settled philosophy isn’t like that at all. For example, these days, most philosophers think that everything that exists is physical—that there aren’t any non-physical things. So, physicalism is more-or-less settled philosophy. But how come philosophers believe this? It’s not because they performed some crucial experiment or because they’ve surveyed the cosmos with a metaphysiscope. Convergence of opinion is only evidence of progress if it comes about in the right sort of way—namely, through the use of methods that give us an objective handle how the world is. But philosophers can’t appeal to such methods, because they don’t have any to appeal to. So convergence can’t be held up as demonstrating that we have moved forward like the scientists have.  

Here’s a different argument in support of philosophical progress. Have a look at Aristotle’s philosophy of biology, and then eyeball some present-day work in philosophy of biology. There’s just no escaping the fact that the modern stuff is a whole lot better than the ancient stuff. Isn’t that progress? Well, sort of. Ask why it is that present-day philosophy of biology is so much better than ancient philosophy of biology, and a big part of the answer—in fact, almost all of the answer—has got to be that biology has progressed. The engine of science has powered ahead and philosophy of science has come along for the ride.

I think that philosophy has made lots of progress—it’s just not made progress towards truth. If that sounds strange, you might have too parochial a view of what progress is. We tend to think of progress on the model of scientific progress—that is, progress towards truth. But why adopt a one-size-fits-all conception of progress? Why think that progress in philosophy is the same kind of thing as progress in science, or any other empirical discipline? As a man of sixty-three, I can lift a lot more weight in the gym than I could when I started lifting back in my thirties. That’s progress, but it’s not progress towards truth. Progress is just movement towards some goal. If your goal is truth, then progress is progress towards truth, and if your goal is bench-pressing a lot of weight, then progress is progress towards benching a lot of weight. It would be silly to say that my weight lifting hasn’t progressed because it hasn’t brought me any closer to the truth! So why fault philosophy for not having failed to get closer to the truth?

The question of whether philosophy has progressed can only be answered by answering a deeper question. What’s the goal of philosophy? What are we after—or rather, what should we be after—when we’re doing philosophy? Whatever the answer to this question is, it’s not the pursuit of truth. That’s not to say that philosophy can’t play a supporting role in the truth project. It certainly can. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett likes to say, “There’s no such thing as philosophy-free science.” Philosophy is a good worker but a bad boss. It’s great at helping out, but it should never be put in charge.

I hate to say it, but those philosophers who think that philosophy’s going to deliver truth are off on a wild goose chase. Some of these folks think that philosophy hasn’t produced what it should produce, and therefore that the theoretical pandemonium described by van Inwagen is a scandal. I disagree.

Others think that philosophy has in fact discovered truths. I disagree with this view too.

I disagree with both of these views because I think that philosophy is in the options business rather the truth business. Its job is to show that there are many ways of addressing a problem, and to spell out the implications of these alternatives. It’s because my students don’t understand that philosophy is in the option business that they complain that philosophy gives them too many answers, and this is also why I don’t think that having too many answers is a problem. Finding lots of answers, without having the resources, all on its own, to decide which of them are the right answers is what philosophy is all about.  


Comments (3)'s picture

Wednesday, June 7, 2017 -- 2:21 PM

I'm happy that D.L. Smith is

I'm happy that D.L. Smith is so comfortable with philosophical disagreements, because, while I agree with many of his observations about progress in science, and philosophical options, I disagree strongly with his view that there is a strong distinction to be made between philosophy and science. There is, but it is wrongheaded. As Smith knows, for around 2000 years, no such distinction was made by philosophers. Philosophy was traditionally considered the rational search for truth and wisdom. The study of nature, science to us, was merely one branch of philosophy; specialists were called 'natural philosophers.' Logic and ethics were two other major branches, known to be distinct in some ways from the other branches, but all were understood to be parts of the largest project in human thinking, the pursuit of wisdom.

In our time, the triumphs of modern science can be honored without divorcing them from their ancient parent. In fact, no such divorce is possible. All the major sciences today - physics, chemistry, biology, etc. - rest on assumptions that cannot be proven by their methods. For example, the assumption that there is a pre-given world of matter and energy that can be studied objectively. The meaning and validity of that claim belongs to metaphysics. The so-called 'scientific method' itself - its nature, its claim to validity, and its limitations cannot be studied by means of observation and experiment. Questions about scientific methodology belong to another great domain of traditional philosophy - epistemology.

Consider just one example. Work currently on string theory, quantum gravity, dark energy, multiverses and other cutting edge ideas in physics will, according to some ambitious scientists, result in a "theory of everything," in which all phenomena and all sciences, even consciousness, will reduce to physics. If that doesn't look to you like a scientific claim, you would be correct. There is no scientific procedure that could justify it. It's a philosophical assumption, one fraught with difficulties that only philosophical analysis has any hope of resolving.

Unless we are content to be "blinded by science," there is nothing to be gained by prolonging a misguided quarrel between science and philosophy. As for progress in philosophy, check out Richard Carrier's list at

David Livingstone Smith's picture

David Livingsto...

Thursday, June 8, 2017 -- 12:03 PM

Thanks for your comment. I

Thanks for your comment. I never claimed, and never would claim, that there is such a thing as philosophy-free science (although there is, unfortunately, science-free philosophy)!. ANY activity that involves the use of concepts has a philosophical dimension. But that doesn't mean that we cannot contrast scientific goals and methods with philosophical ones. One might as well say that there's no distinction to be made between philosophy and basketball because basketball has a philosophical dimension. To my mind, defining present-day philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom destroys any sense of it as a distinctive activity.

PeterJ's picture


Thursday, June 15, 2017 -- 3:29 AM

I hardly know what to say.

I hardly know what to say. Why would someone write this rather than read the literature? If a person is unable to solve philosophy and answer its questions then they need not assign the same problem to everyone else. It is a form of projection. The problem afflicts the Academy but not the whole of philosophy. It's as if the Academy has a policy of shooting itself in the foot.

Please read something about Buddhist philosophy, more generally the Perennial philosophy, and the way in which it resolves metaphysical questions such as freewill by endorsing a neutral metaphysical position. If you cannot refute this philosophy then you cannot argue that philosophy is unsolvable or incomprehensible. Prove it or retract.

The lack of scholarship here is breathtaking. It reduces philosophy to being a waste of time and this is no doubt why departments are closing as we speak. This essay reminds me of Gerald Rattner, who destroyed his jewelry company by making derisory comments in public about his own products.

That the Academy has mode no progress since Plato is made perfectly clear here, for anyone to see. Students should bow to the inevitable and look elsewhere for comprehension and understanding, and quickly, before they are indoctrinated into the idea that this essay is well informed.

Pardon my outspokenness. This sort of article is what loses philosophers their jobs and leads people to think that studying the subject is pointless. In reality it is simply what happens when we do not study philosophy broadly but stick to the narrow curriculum imposed on students in our universities.

Of course philosophy produces answers and solves problems. This si what it is for. One just has to do it right. I could teach a person how to solve its problems in a matter of days. One just has to stop dismissing the Perennial philosophy as if it does not exist. The price of doing so is incomprehension, as we see here. This article is a clear symptom of an underlying academic scandal that is destroying university philosophy.

I'd be happy to chat about it further but need to go away and calm down first. This is not scholarship but a defense of dogma.