A couple of days ago, we posted a list of our mid-April readings. Now that we’ve read the first three items on our list, it’s time to begin sharing our thoughts with our loyal readers. Today, let’s start with Paras Chopra’s short essay “Philosophy Is Politics,” one of the best and most readable essays we’ve read explaining why there is no progress in philosophy. Among other things, Chopra harkens back to Wittgenstein and talks about the problem of language. Words can mean different things to different people, and philosophical words and concepts are notoriously slippery and open-ended. More fundamentally, Chopra claims that philosophers preoccupy themselves with nonsense questions, that is, questions whose answers are not testable. Consider the problem of free will. Is there any way of confirming (or better yet, falsifying) the existence of our free will? And even if there were such a way of testing this philosophical concept, would the answer matter? Here is my favorite sentence from Chopra’s essay: “What matters isn’t whether there’s free will or not, the real question should be how differently would I live my life if I knew the answer.” (Same goes with questions of morality. Most people might sincerely believe that lying is morally wrong (at least in most cases; there are always clever exceptions), but does this belief, however sincere, by itself reduce the overall level of deception among the population?)
But why is philosophy like politics? After all, philosophers are engaged in rational discussion bounded by the rules of logic. In the domain of politics, by contrast, disagreements are settled either by force or by majority rule (or by some other voting rule), and just because a dictator promulgates a decree or a majority of elected officials vote in favor of some law, by itself, carries no epistemic weight. A different dictator or a different ruling coalition might have decided the matter differently. Nevertheless, according to Chopra, philosophers are really engaged in a kind of higher-level politics (our term, not his): “The reason there’s no agreement on questions of morality, liberty, free will, etc. is because these topics explore how a human ought to live…. So everyone has a pet-theory for these philosophical questions, some are sophisticated, others are naive but none is ‘objectively’ true. The victory of your theory over another is a matter of convincing others that your version is better. And that’s a necessarily political act.” (By this measure, isn’t science just another form of higher-level politics as well?) If you are fascinated by these questions, do read the whole thing … We would love to be persuaded as to why Chopra is wrong!