A new fallacy or just old hat?

There’s a way of thinking that I’ve encountered a number of times recently.  One struck me quite dramatically at the Hume Society meeting; it was in an otherwise excellect paper.  I’m inclined to think  the way of thinking is fallacious, but I’m willing to believe I’m wrong.

The pattern of thought goes like this:

philosophical reflection reveals that a desireable trait has [or is constituted by the possession of] features X, Y and Z.  So if we practice X, Y, Z we’ll become better people and have a better chance to succeed at goal G

[see comments one and two for  the amendment.]I hope this can be discussed without discussing any particular instance.  And anyone who feel indirectly targeting here, shouldn’t!

So let me try to give a silly example:  We might say that Descartes shows us how to detach the mind from the senses and get clear and distinct ideas.  This is a foundational move for those who want to be good mathematicians.  So if we follow Descartes, we can become better mathematicians.

The problem that I want to focus on with this line of thought is the idea that philosophers are privy to the psychological conditions for the successful pursuit of human excellence.  Maybe sometimes we get that right, but over the last 20-30 years the evidence has been mounting that uncovering the right psychological conditions that do lead to excellence is really not a matter simply of traditional philosophical expertise.  We could use, for example, some studies of the effects of scepticism about the senses on budding mathematicians.

At the Hume conference, Sean Nichols gave a great paper about how Humean human moral reasoning is.  I think it illustrates the role empirical work can have in some  areas of enquiry, maybe particularly those attempting to understand how to achieve excellence.

But in any case, I’d love to know what others think.

5 thoughts on “A new fallacy or just old hat?

  1. The pattern of thought is an old fallacy. That a desirable trait A has features X,Y,and Z does not mean anything that has X, Y, and Z is/has trait A, or is desirable. Nor does pursuing features X,Y, and Z necessarily advance us towards trait A. It may, of course, but it simply doesn’t follow.

    As an aside, mathematics has nothing to do with “clear and distinct ideas”, it’s nothing so … woolly. Mathematics is a game, certain moves are allowed (the game has many variants with different rules about what are legal moves). Proving something, say X, from Assumptions A* means finding a series of legal moves that gets you from A* to X. This is very concrete and verifiable.
    Scepticism about the senses simply doesn’t come into it.

  2. Delft, thanks for the comments. I realized on reading it that I didn’t capture the reasoning I meant to characterize. Let me try another example: Suppose someone says that philosophical reflection reveals that good parenting consists in the exercise of benevolence and restraint. So it you approach your children with benevolence and a restraint of inclinations to act in anger, etc, you will produce flourishing children. The problemm I have in mind isn’t that there are lots of obvious things left out, such as feeding them. Rather, it is that there are unobvious things that philosophical reflection won’t catch. One might be the management of sub-conscious desire, which at least analytic philosopohy has been less than stellar at picking up on. Another might be touch; philosophical reflection may leave us without much idea of how much children need touching.

    There are interesting questions about about maths and whether it invoves sensory based concepts or not. Descartes, I think, was firmly on the “not” side. Dehaene’s work supports an affirmative answer, atleast inmy view.

  3. It seems as though the underlying mistake you’re referring to is the age-old one of thinking that “A → B” entails “B → A”. So, [“good parent” → “benevolent and restrained”] entails [“benevolent and restrained” → “good parent”]. The same fallacy leads people into thinking that reading the Bible makes them good Christians.

  4. BTW, I had to smile at “..philosophical reflection may leave us without much idea of how much children need touching.” I really don’t know how seriously to take you here – was that comment a little tongue-in-cheek? Why on earth would philosophical reflection have anything at all to contribute to that question? It would be like asking a philosopher how many miles per gallon a 1952 Vincent Black Lightning can achieve, or how many hours practice it would take to learn Middle Hittite – she might know the answer, but not by means of philosophical reflection!

    So perhaps the root fallacy is not the one I mentioned above, but the idea that philosophy can reveal facts about the world.

    There is a venerable apocryphal tale from the Sorbonne in the fourteenth century. A student overhears two professors (a Franciscan and a Dominican, I think, in the original) arguing from Avicenna and Averroes about how many teeth a horse has. The student goes to the stables, looks in some horses’ mouths, and goes back to the philosophers. “Reverend fathers, I have looked at some horses, and the mares have twenty-four teeth, while the geldings have twenty-eight.” The professors are outraged, and the student is summarily expelled, having displayed his utter unfitness to be a philosopher.

  5. Windermere, thanks for your comments. I am sorry it has taken me a while to respond. I think your last comments is closest to what I was trying to get at. However, I think that we obviously know that phil0s0phy doesn’t reveal all the facts about the world”. What I think I’ve been seeing is an assumption that philosophy can reveal all that is needed for human beings to take action.

    I’m really reluctant to cite actual examples,, but examples involving implicit bias might help here. A number of people have thought that white racism regarding Blacks can be addressed by having mixed race groups of students work together over one or two semesters. And indeed the white students do tend to report themselves as transformed. However, when researchers finally thought to ask black participants, they were less enthusiastic. The blacks thought that the whites had in fact retained a lot of their condescension and their stereotypes. Just what got left out by the working together is not entirely clear; implicit bias is a good bet, but some therists think that behind a lot of racism stands power relations and people are extremely reluctant to shift their power over others.

    In any case, in my experience too many people think they know how to change X or Y or Z without knowing just what the factors are that make this all so very difficult.

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