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What Philosophers Got Right

Philosophers got a lot of things wrong. Everything is not made of water; the problem of evil is still a problem; and scientists have yet to find anything resembling a platonic essence. When it comes to understanding people and the world, the great metaphysicians missed the mark.

But there is one thing they got right.

Philosophers were masters of self-doubt. Socrates was famous for his self-criticisms; rarely was he satisfied with a query and never did he claim to have knowledge – a sure sign of ignorance if you asked him. Descartes began his meditations by identifying things that “can be called into doubt,” which turned out to be everything save his existence. And then there is George Berkeley, who went as far as saying that our existence is an illusion.

The rest of us are the opposite. We think we’re right most of the time; we are overconfident; we rarely challenge our opinions. Modern society, where sound bites are the norm and a decent intellectual conversation demands too much patience for most, isn’t helping. But it is, I think, our very nature that is the root of the problem.

For example, in one experiment Gary Marcus had subjects read either a report showing that good firefighting correlated with risk-taking ability or that bad firefighting correlated with risk-taking ability. Then each group was subdivided – some people reflected on what they read and others attempted to complete difficult geometrical puzzles. Marcus’ experiment, of course, was bogus. And when he asked his subjects what they really thought of firefighting, he found that “people in the subgroups who got a chance to reflect (and create their own explanations) continued to believe whatever they had initially read.” Unlike philosophers, they started with a conclusion and then went looking for reasons to support it.

In another study done by Ziva Kunda, participants were brought into a room and told that they’ll be playing a game. Before the game started, they were instructed to watch someone else play the game who will either compete with them or against them. However, Kunda rigged the study; the participants actually watched a confederate, who played the game perfectly answering every question correct. Kunda found that the participants who were lined up to play against the confederate were dismissive and tended to attribute his accuracy to luck whereas the participants who were lined up to play with the confederate were praiseworthy of his “skills.” Both groups saw the same performance yet came to exact opposite conclusions. Clearly, we scrutinize much less when things go our way.

We are also overconfident in terms of just about anything. As one author explains, “95 percent of professors report that they are above average teachers, 96 percent of college students say that they have above average social skills…[and] 19% of Americans say that they are in the top 10% of earners.” We humans take great pride in maintaining our nearly infallible positions at the center of our subjective universes and this is easy to illustrate empirically. Psychological findings are normally fairly difficult to replicate, but not overconfidence, which is one of the most reliable findings in the lab.

How do we escape our self-inflicted epistemology traps?

Philosophy is about listening and reading carefully, logically analyzing arguments and being critical of your opinions and the opinions of others. It forces people to question presuppositions about the world that they normally take for granted and it requires a certain sensitivity to nuance. People will only be able to break out of their epistemology self-delusion once they realize that a life without these attributes is a mistake.

Philosophers got a lot of things wrong, but they understood better than anyone else that a life unexamined is a life not worth living.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kuze #

    While I often think of this as it applies to pundits, scientists and other professionals it is sometimes most interesting to think about in personal contexts.

    At my place of work there is a conflict between two parties where one is obviously guilty of poor behavior bordering on harassment but they don’t see it that way, in their view they themselves are the victim. Upon appealing to management for some kind of justice, management does not agree that they are a victim and in fact have been the one in the wrong. Does this person step back and re-evaluate themselves? No, they cling deeper to their narrative of persecution and now feel the company has betrayed them.

    While researching about this type of behavior I came across work by Roy Baumeister (a prolific guy evidently) about self-esteem/narcissism. It’s fascinating the worlds and narratives we can spin for ourselves and while these can serve to help cushion our sense of self from hurt, man can they lead us astray and cause chaos in our lives. There’s certainly a balance to be had and obviously there’s such a thing as too much self doubt, nevertheless: “Am I wrong?” is a question many of us could stand to ask ourselves more often.

    Great blog as always.

    January 13, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Thanks Kuza – sorry to read that story, sounds like some people need to be more realistic with their actions.

      And “Am I Wrong,” probably the hardest question to ask, but the most important.

      January 13, 2012
  2. Q. How do we escape our self-inflected epistemology traps?

    A. Seek out honest friends.

    January 13, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      I agree, there is a bit about that in the book “Connected.”

      January 13, 2012
  3. Great blog.

    Personally, I found Prof. Cornel West’s description of philosophy accurate. He calls it a critical disposition of wrestling with wants and desires in face of imminent death, wrestling with dialogue in face of dogmatism and keeping alive democratic experiments in the face structures and institutions of power (patriarchy, corporations etc).

    The beauty of this description to me lies in the way it sets out a normative paradigm for philosophy.

    January 16, 2012

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