Friday, February 14, 2020

What's wrong with Philosophical Arguments?

Summary: Are debates between adversaries the best way to 
establish what is true?  Is it better to use more cooperative 
People have had philosophical arguments for thousands of 
years.  There has been some progress on some problems, 
but there are some topics, like ethics and rules of behavior, 
that have not given rise to rules that are considered to be 
philosophically definite. 
Is that because the problems are difficult, or is there a 
problem with the way the arguments are made?  Prof. 
Martin Lenz argues in the following excerpts from his article 
that there are problems with the way philosophical arguments 
are done.  Interested readers should follow the link and read 
the entire article.  (Prof. Lenz will have a book coming out soon.)

Exerpts from article at

Professor of history of philosophy explains why adversarial criticism is antithetical to truth
By Martin Lenz

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Written January 12, 2020  
 "Philosophical discussions, whether in a professional  
setting or at the bar, frequently consist of calling out 
mistakes in whatever has been proposed.... This  
adversarial style is often celebrated as truth-conducive. 
Eliminating false assumptions seems to leave us with 
truth in the marketplace of ideas...  I doubt that it is a 
particularly good approach to philosophical discussions.... Claims  
are either true or false; arguments are either valid or invalid....

"...A more fluid attitude towards authorship [is] if you 
discuss an idea among friends, tossing out illustrations, 
laughing away criticism and speculating about remote 
applications, whose idea is it at the end of the night?...

"The appropriate metaphorical resources for naming this 
philosophical practice should not be derived from warfare 
but from playgrounds, where reinvention and serendipity 
guide our interactions."

 Lenz makes good points but for somewhat wrong reasons. For a lot of problems in society, the solution has to come from getting people to cooperate to act together. If one smart philosopher comes up with an answer but can't convince other people to do it, then it won't solve the problem. If he (or she) can address criticism but not in a way that is inspiring and charismatic, people won't follow the lead even if they can't see a logical flaw. They must be convinced to buy into the goal and the path forward. This is a reason that, in business, a committee is needed to work on a project, because if many people don't agree to work on it, the project won't get done. 

That doesn't mean that there aren't questions with true/false answers that can be decided by adversaries. That's the way the court and legal justice system is set up to determine if someone is guilty or not guilty. But even questions that look like they should be this kind of problem, like "Is it good to believe in God?" or "Is it right to kill?", can depend on situations or the group that a person is in. If someone is born and raised as a fundamentalist among a fundamentalist community, then the answer to the first question may have to be yes. For a soldier in battle, the answer to the second may also be yes.

This also leads into another point that Lenz makes. When a group solution is accepted and then modified by a group discussion, the idea doesn't belong to one person any more. One person may have originated the initial idea. But the person can't continue to claim ownership if there are contributions from many people. 

In the world of science, this issue is addressed by having multiple authors on publications. Usually, there is no notation about which author worked on which part of the paper. In movie projects, there are credits at the end that go on for many minutes with details about who had which jobs. But if you buy a product like an iPhone, it has a company logo on it, but who knows what person actually worked on which parts? There may be a wonderfully innovative part of the phone that no one knows who came up with the idea. 

This may seem like a modern problem that applies to intellectual property, but the same issue goes back to the dawn of civilization. As soon as people sold their labor and lost control of the goods that they produced, they lost the credit and meaning for doing the labor. For their effort to have a meaning, they had to get something meaningful in return. This may be the reason that money has gotten its value, not just as a measure for exchanging goods but also as a important value in itself. Money represents the way that labor matters in society. Similarly, for this reason, slavery has failed as a way to provide labor in society because slaves aren't given anything that shows the value of their effort. They only get punishment if they stop working. 

Group efforts are as old as civilization, but they are getting more important in technological society. How do we find a way to share credit on a group project? For example, I posted a version of this essay online. What if I edit it to add comments from the discussion of a group? Is the essay still mine, or do I have to add coauthors or give credit to people who made contributions? 

A current example is given by the website TikTok. People make 15 sec videos of lip synching or dancing to a song. The site is Chinese and they don't worry too much about copyrights. But it raises the question of who owns the video. Is the dancer stealing the music, or is it a friendly collaboration?  What happens if the videos help to promote the song to make it a number one hit, as happened for the song "Old Town Road"?

The modern problem is still whether people are paid, and what they are paid for. It is also a problem of coming up with new ideas and finding new ways to encourage new ideas and new ways to do things that can solve social problems. As Lenz wrote, new ideas come from a sense of play, which takes an extra kind of trust and collaboration.  

Are the ideas for free, and people only get paid for the work of developing them? Should ideas be valuable, or is work the only thing that is paid for? Patents can be filed for new inventions, but the inventor doesn't get paid unless there is actually a product or service that is developed and sold based on the patent idea. In government, companies write proposals with ideas about what they plan to do, but the proposals are written for free. They don't get paid until they carry them out.

Getting solutions to work, like getting videos to "go viral," is an entirely different effort from coming up with an idea.  It comes from marketing to promote an idea.  It is getting others to be excited about it.  It may even come from an employer who says "Do it in a new way or else you'll be fired."   

If people are only paid for promoting ideas, but not for coming up with new ideas, will we have a society that advertises but doesn't create? Is that the kind of society that we want to have?