I’ve been reading the debacle over Krauss’s recent comments about philosophy with a great deal of interest. It started off with an interview in the Atlantic in which Krauss argued that physics has made philosophy obsolete, and he seemingly back-tracked over some of the claims he had previously made in regards to his book. This gathered a fury of responses from philosophers and scientists alike (one of the better ones) that denounced his wide dismissal of the utility of philosophy. Krauss then sought to clarify his position in this article in Scientific American. Personally, I thought Krauss’s response was careful and respectable, but I’d like to talk a bit about what I think philosophy is, and what it’s aim should be (or is).
This back-and-forth has made me think a lot about the nature and utility of philosophy. Philosophy is notoriously hard to define, and I think it’s purpose or end goal is even more difficult to narrow down. A lot of people think it’s about knowing “how to live the good life” or “knowing the good” or other similar questions. I’ve actually got a slightly different contention, one which is informed by Wilfrid Sellars’s Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man. In this work, which I highly suggest reading in its entirety, Sellars defines the task of philosophy as follows:
“The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term. Under ‘things in the broadest possible sense’ I include such radically different items as not only ‘cabbages and kings’, but numbers and duties, possibilities and finger snaps, aesthetic experience and death. To achieve success in philosophy would be, to use a contemporary turn of phrase, to ‘know one’s way around’ with respect to all these things, not in that unreflective way in which the centipede of the story knew its way around before it faced the question, ‘how do I walk?’, but in that reflective way which means that no intellectual holds are barred.”
He has a very specific meaning for “to know one’s way around [with respect to all these things]“, and hopefully I can paint a brief picture of how it relates to the overall scope of philosophy. Sellars differentiates between two views of the world, one which he calls the manifest or man-in-the-world (I like the German word, dasein). The manifest can be described as “a sophistication and refinement of the image in terms of which man first came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world; in short, came to be man.” He characterizes the manifest as being concerned especially with persons and things so that normativity and reason are central concerns of this type of image (consider how one might reason about another person’s behavior: ‘They may have gone to the party because they didn’t have to work the next morning.’) The manifest image can change, Sellars argues, empirically (by improving our observations through inductive reasoning) or categorically (from Cartesian mind-body dualism to believing humans are fully physical beings).
The scientific image, on the other hand, can hypothesize about new frameworks and indeed build on and correct them, in the hopes that one day there will be an exhaustive and complete description of what there is and the explanation of the processes at work in the universe. Sellars argues that the scientific image often clashes and presents a “rival” image to the manifest, and he sees the principle task of philosophy to, as he concludes, “transcend the dualism of the manifest and scientific images of man-of-the-world.”
In order to further clarify, we can look at this task in the context of a specific philosophical problem: free-will. I won’t attempt to provide a resolution, but we can begin to see the layout of how these problems and potential solutions might develop. The manifest arguably sees human beings as possessing agency, or the freedom of the ‘will’ to delineate between courses of action through reasoning and reflection. While the manifest image of free-will may arguably understand the psychological, biological, and neurological constraints upon these freedoms (and this has changed the landscape of the manifest in how we think about freedom which is now far less radical – as we might excuse people who are “in the heat of passion” or “mentally unfit” from their actions), the manifest is primarily concerned with how this relates to our observations about the world. We generally think of people as agents who could have done otherwise given the same situation.
This can’t be construed scientifically, and indeed it might be counter to what we could represent in a physical system emulated by science. In neuroscience, for example, Benjamin Libet’s experiments in the 1980′s seems to undermine many of the principles we might take for granted in delineating about free-will. It seems that unconscious processes might “decide” our actions before we are consciously aware of them, which severely undermines the idea that we can properly reason about courses of action.
The task of philosophy, one might argue, is to somehow reconcile or transcend these two images and their representations of freedom. To give an argument for how the manifest and scientific image could be seen as a single, cohesive narrative about the freedom of human beings. Philosophers have begun to do just such a thing, and there are a myriad of positions which disagree about how exactly to do that.
We can see this in a survey of two positions, compatibilism and incompatibilism. Compatibilism would argue that freedom of the will and determinism (all of our actions are a result of the causes before them) are actually compatible positions. (More on the position can be found here.) Compatibilism might be seen as a hybrid of the manifest and scientific and would attempt to provide a compelling narrative on how we could view freedom. Incompatibilism, on the other hand, would suggest that perhaps freedom is a concept that is not salvageable, and argues for a dismissal of the former view of the manifest.
With that example, we can see how philosophy operates and what it is attempting to accomplish. A complete and sophisticated account of human freedom is indispensable, as it informs so many other aspects of our lives: economics, politics, our justice system, etc. If we buy what Sellars is selling (ha!), then we can see the principle task of philosophy is weaving together the various specialties in a broader, more general sense so that we can properly “find our way around”.