Tuesday, July 05, 2005

But That's Just Stupid


One of the arguments that both academics and philosophers (often an intersecting pair of sets) have to deal with is what I call the "But That's Just Stupid" argument. The worst thing about it is that it's quite a good argument in the context of any particular problem.

The chief difficulty is that people want answers, whereas philosophy gives you, primarily, principles. Philosophy doesn't have to be so general and abstract, but in presenting a philosophical argument you almost always have to include both the answers and the philosophy rolled into one. The other major difficulty is not knowing all the facts. Here's an example of an unphilosophical claim:

Unemployment is around 5%, which is around the natural level. Therefore government is performing well.

Philosophically speaking, I have no problem with proceeding from the fact that unemployment is around the natural level to the conclusion that government is performing well. It doesn't seem reasonable to assess the government is underperforming if in fact unemployment is both low and normal.

Unfortunately, this argument quickly unravels when the true structure of (for example) Australian unemployment is understood. Rather than displaying an evenly distributed distribution, the great majority of incomes are in fact closer to the low end. Unemployment levels are not distributed evenly across various social groups. The unemployment rate fails to capture many people who are working part-time but would like more work, or are disabled, or for other reasons are not included statistically.

It is very easy for a good philosophical argument to reach poor conclusions based on even quite subtle untruths. Philosophical arguments are subject to chaos theory - a butterfly flapping its metaphorical wings can result in quite outrageous conclusions.

Similarly, many philosophical theories are developed not from a factual basis, but a theoretical one. One can often make a claim in the pursuit of one virtuous principle, only to discover that when applied to a factual example, the claim becomes farcicle in light of its other effects on the situation.

Failing to deal with the "But That's Just Stupid" argument is, I think, the primary reason for the sidelining of academia in this country. Well, that and their introverted nature and distance from the ordinary man. Let's just say it's a major reason. Academics have failed to overcome the bullshit detectors that we were all given at birth.

However, just because some arguments are vulnerable to this kind of attack doesn't mean that all arguments are vulnerable to this kind of attack. The challenge, as I see it, is to deal rationally and respecfully with people's cynicism. Rather than pursuing the most controversial elements of a doctrine, philosophers should concentrate on identifying theories which are robust.

As many philosophers are quick to point out, just because a theory doesn't fit the facts doesn't mean it can't help identify particular principles to which one should aspire. Being able to separate the argument from the facts can frequently help you to discover whether, for example, a person is merely *mistaken* in making a particular claim, or whether they are arguing poorly or pursuing a hidden agenda.

Similarly, identifying the difference between ignorance and difference can be important. Belief in a God is the kind of thing which involves a difference of faith, whereas the impact strength of a motor vehicle is not. Using the tools of philosophy it should be possible to be clear and explicit about these issues. Very often, I feel, people on two sides of a debate cannot even understand how it is that they can discuss their positions.

Let us return to our unemployment example -- is the real problem with unemployment one of personal empowerment, or is it rather an economic one?

For each person who is supported through the state, that money could potentially be used for saving lives medically. An argument commonly run is that recieving unemployment benefits should be a fundamental right -- that we owe it to them as humans. One counter-argument is that we don't owe it to them as humans. But there are many others, such as conflicting needs for the resources required to support a large unemployed population.

This is not the place to do a detailed dissection of the arguments commonly run, their clarity and knowability and so forth. Rather, it is an easily identified real issue where people frequently argue past eachother, or use a moral argument to oppose an economic one for example. It is philosophy which can give use the tools to make our meanings more explicit.

Philosophy's chief value is in allowing people to understand their own arguments.



Blogger Samuel Douglas said...

There does seem to be a fair ammount of timidity (is that even a 'real' word?) inherent in many academics, not just philosophers, when it comes to speaking out on issues. Whether this is for fear of offending particular groups or not wanting to be asscoiated with a particualr political viewpoint, I am unsure.
There is also intellectual snobbery. Sometimes the fact that many people are interested in someting is enough to put a philosopher off. I know this for sure, as some of my classmates already exhibit this trait.
This is a pity, becasue if there is one thing that people could benifit from, it is the ability to understand and construct argments in a more and logical coherent manner.

7/07/2005 02:52:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

I also think intellectual snobbery has at time affected my marks -- the snobbery of the lecturer that is! (My own is of course entirely justified, ha ha).

Oh well, all opinions are welcome here, and interaction is encouraged. Thanks for stopping by.

7/08/2005 10:44:00 AM  

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