Philosophers and Madmen


In our last series “Free Will and Benjamin Libet”, we argued that neurobiology leads to epiphenomenalism. That’s the view that mental states can have no effect in the physical world, not even on our own bodies. Epihenomenalism leads to the Other Minds problem. We can only perceive how people act, and if the mental can have no influence on how they act, how can you ever know that other people have minds? The failure to solve the Other Minds problem leads to Solipsism: There are no minds other than mine.

This depressing train of thought powerfully provoked BQTA contributor Carter Gillies:   

Philosophers have this penchant for operating as if they were pure thought in a vacuum. Wittgenstein showed so many reasons why the traditional armchair speculations have inherent limitations. So many problems philosophers get worked by are merely tangles in our language. We think in language (and this includes more than words, that misconception another egregious philosophical boondoggle). We can think only there, and if you misuse language what exactly are you working with but a broken tool? Everything we can ever ask, everything we can come to know starts with a human form of life. Every philosophical attempt to sidestep that is invariably doomed to greater or lesser failure. 

Solipsism is a perfect example of pure thought in a vacuum. How can I know there is any other mind in the world but mine? Mine must be the only mind!  “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.” Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations sec 38.

Philosophers so often treat their subject matter as a natural given, but it is often only given to their adult and encultured minds (specifically their philosophically trained minds). How did any of us learn these things? What would it mean to learn something different? Why is that important? What difference does it make? And generally it is only philosophers that even are tempted to go down the rabbit holes. Who but a philosopher or a madman worries about solipsism!?! There is a clue there as to why Wittgenstein thought he was engaged in THERAPY. 

Unless you start with the form of life in which philosophical questions are even situated as questions, more often than not you end up building a house of cards, language separated from any ground it had in the actual lived world. It is putting the cart before the horse, which only gets us nowhere. The only people seemingly content to spend their time in this confusion are philosophers and madmen……

Philosophers are among the most imaginative fabricators around. We like to build monuments to our cleverness. There are whole cathedrals of words that no one actually lives in (solipsism anyone?). And what passes for traditional philosophy often really are just “literary” embellishments, pure fiction, cleverness couched in an air of logic and argument. A testament only to our perseverance in tracing out every foible to its (dead end) conclusion. If something sounds like a problem we too often fixate on that without first clarifying whether the thing we are exercised by actually makes sense. We see a ‘problem’ and assume something, specifically IT, needs to be fixed. 

Sometimes the problem is not the thing the question asked but our conceit to ask the question in the first place. There are bad questions. There are questions that only appear to ask for an answer, but are outright nonsense. And in our ordinary language and our ordinary lives there is a place for nonsense. Nursery rhymes and poetry don’t have to ‘make sense’. But the transition between ordinary things we talk about and doing philosophy with those very same sets of words and phrases needs to be carefully navigated. Philosophy often takes as absolutely serious what was never intended that way or for that use. It makes mistakes in placing our language outside its ordinary and appropriate contexts. We don’t need better answers to only imagined problems. What we need is Better Questions Than Answers.  








Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s