Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Philosophers Reason, and Reject Belief Imposition

(Moon over the pine tree in my backyard.)

Agnes Callard is a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago. Her article "Why Philosophers Shouldn't Sign Petitions" is excellent. And, it explains why I go slow, very slow, in regard to political (and other) issues. (Even if inconsistently.)

Here are some quotes, with comments.

"Our job is to persuade by argument, not by wielding influence."
"Influence" is not something to be "wielded." One either has influence, or they don't have it.
An "argument" is one or more statements that, if true, lead either inductively or deductively to a conclusion. The conclusion would then be true. Philosophers are interested in truth. We need sound or cogent arguments to convince us.

A petition "tries to persuade you to believe (that it is right to do) something because many people, some of whom are authorities, believe it (is the right thing to do). It is not always wrong to believe things because many people believe them, but it is always intellectually uninquisitive to do so."
This reasoning is false:
1. Many people believe X.
2. Therefore, X must be true.
If one or more authorities are mentioned, look at their reasoning, not at the mere fact that they are called an "authority."
"The fact that many believe it [X] doesn’t shed any light on it why it’s true — and that is what the intellectually inquisitive person wants to know." 

"There is something aggressive about the way in which voices gain strength and volume by being joined together. Numbers generate a pressure to believe that isn’t grounded in explanatory force, because having more and more adherents to a view doesn’t give rise to better and better accounts of why the view is correct. Philosophers ought to be especially sensitive to introducing this element of belief imposition into our culture." 
Reject "belief imposition" by numbers.

"Socrates regularly replies, “why should we care so much for what the majority (“hoi polloi”) think?” (Crito 44c.) Socrates wants to know why the view is true, not who or how many hold it."

"An expert understands where her expertise runs out; unlike the layman, the expert knows what she doesn’t know. Much of the job of the philosophical expert consists of exposing the degree to which all of us — philosophers and laymen alike — are inclined to wrongly arrogate philosophical knowledge to ourselves, often under the heading of “common sense.”" 
This is why, as a philosopher and as a pastor, I keep my mouth shut when certain areas of politics are involved (e.g., economic theory). This is why, when I am asked a question, I often refer the person to some things to study. (Most have neither the desire nor the time to do this. In my opinion, they should henceforth be silent.)

"Persuasion by majority or authority is an unsound way to inquire; the employment of such a procedure constitutes a kind of philosophical malpractice."

"I am not saying that philosophers should refrain from engaging in political activity; my target is instead the politicization of philosophy itself. I think that the conduct of the profession should be as bottomless as its subject matter: If we are going to have professional, intramural discussions about the ethics of the profession, we should do so philosophically and not by petitioning one another. We should allow ourselves the license to be philosophical all the way down."

Philosophers, historically, refuse to jump on the ideological bandwagon. This gets some of them (like Socrates!) in trouble. Philosophers are after truth, why some belief is true. Unfortunately, reasoning about hard subjects and engaging in civil discourse is not popular in American culture. Callard writes:

"Philosophical argument may not always bring about the largest number of mind-changes in your audience — the award on that front would go to mass propaganda of some kind — but it represents the kind of belief acquisition that we as philosophers are committed to: intellectually honest, conducive to knowledge, nonaggressive, inquisitive, respectful."

I have a B.A. in philosophy from Northern Illinois University, a PhD in philosophical theology from Northwestern University, and taught philosophy for seventeen years at Monroe County Community College. I confess to signing a petition recently. There are decades of research and argument formation behind my signature.