Common Sense, Copernicus, and Intuition in Philosophy

A quick observation about a trend in philosophical argumentation:

When a philosopher defends a view that seems to align with our immediate expectations, s/he will frequently raise something like the following, often in the introduction: this view aligns with common sense. And while it is possible for philosophy to overturn common sense, this is rare. Usually, common sense views are correct.

When a philosopher defends a view that seems counterintuitive, s/he will frequently raise something like the following point, often in the introduction: yes, this view runs counter to common sense. But sometimes radical shifts in thinking do occur, as in the Copernican revolution. It is a mistake to dismiss a view out of hand simply because it does not accord with common sense.

(I was recently reminded of the former attitude by Tyler Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments, and of the latter by Graham Priest’s In Contradiction, which, though it does not cite Copernicus, does cite scientific theories that were initially considered ‘outrageous’ and eventually accepted. I’m sure I have seen both before elsewhere.)

The two attitudes are not inconsistent. It is possible that both (1) it is rare for philosophy to overturn common sense; and (2) it is poor practice to dismiss arguments on account of their being counterintuitive. In fact, I suspect most would agree that both (1) and (2) are true.

Even so, the two attitudes do roughly pull in opposing directions. The stronger our belief in (1), the less serious we are likely to be about (2); and vice versa.

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Reply to Tyler Cowen’s ‘Stubborn Attachments’

Disclaimers! First: I (somewhat indirectly) work for Tyler Cowen.

Second, this is a reply, not a review. My review is simple: Stubborn Attachments is a fascinating, thought-provoking work of political philosophy. Given its depth and originality, it’s also remarkably accessible. I strongly recommend it.

Third: there is plenty of interesting material in the book that I will not address at all. This includes narrow arguments about redistribution and environmental policy, as well as more abstract arguments about ethical disagreement and decision-making. I will not touch on these because I either simply agree, or if I have reservations, they’re not all that interesting.

Onto the fun stuff.

Introduction: Cowen’s argument in a nutshell, and map of my response

Essential to Cowen’s position is the claim that the discount rate for the value of the wellbeing of future people should be zero. In other words, the fact that someone doesn’t exist yet does not at all diminish the ethical value of their wellbeing. John, who is alive today, living a life of, say, 100 net utils, is worth exactly the same as Linda, who will live two hundred years from now, living a life of 100 net utils.

Presumably, there will be many, many more people alive in the future than are alive today. So, when we think about hard things like public policy and social organization, we shouldn’t aim to maximize the wellbeing of people alive today. Instead, we should maximize the wellbeing of all people—present and future. Given that there will be so many more future people, in practice this means our focus should be on maximizing the wellbeing of future people.

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A Summary of My Philosophical Questions

I’ve made some changes to the site to reflect my change in priorities and outlook over the past year or two. I also rewrote my ‘about‘ bit. I decided to make it mostly a summary of the philosophical questions and subject matter that are of interest to me and why. I’m happy with how it came out. There’s something very satisfying about laying down a statement of where I am intellectually at some specific time. It’s not comprehensive—notably lacking are my interests in regress and specificity in meanings, and in Hegel. But editing > comprehensiveness, so I’m going to leave those out. In any case, here’s the summary:

Philosophy of logic: People give me a weird look when I say that the philosophy of logic is my strongest philosophical passion. Maybe I can explain it this way: consider any belief you hold. It might even be a tricky belief, like that you don’t know anything for sure, or that your beliefs are not the sorts of things that can be put into words (nice try). Whatever this belief may be, and whether you realize it or not, it is constrained by some abstract, fundamental rules. Rules like if ‘A’ is true and ‘B’ is true, it follows that ‘A & B’ is true. You might think: what could possibly be interesting about such trivial observations? To my mind, there are two very interesting things about them. One is that when we codify all these trivial, almost stupidly obvious rules, we discover that they yield paradoxes.…

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