Why doesn't philosophy have higher standards for its arguments?



Mathematical systems are an excellent model for organizing and conducting thought:

In the mathematics community, any argument in support of a conjecture, that deviates from "sound argument" never flies except by mistake.

Why don't we do the same type of organization and hold ourselves to the same standard?

Math proof = Sound argument

We'd likely see a lot corollaries of conjectures but that's okay if we're in this for the long haul.


Posted 2019-07-15T05:04:41.987

Reputation: 673

Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

– Geoffrey Thomas – 2019-07-17T17:54:37.770



Do you have a proof that we don't hold ourselves to higher standards?

There's actually a rather interesting little corner of mathematics called "proof theory." It deals with the question of what a proof is and how can we use them. It starts to look like philosophy from time to time.

I think the real difference is that mathematics typically starts with a small set of very crisply defined ideas, and then manipulates them. A lot of philosophy comes from dealing with ideas that get murky when you look at them too long. The tools of proof theory are not designed to work with that.

Cort Ammon

Posted 2019-07-15T05:04:41.987

Reputation: 16 681

15I will note that philosophy does have some remarkably precise arguments. The problem is that there's so many nuanced positions that there's simply too many precise arguments. In the determinism vs. freewill debates, there's enough precisely defined concepts of freewill out there to give you a headache so strong that you'll seek out a trolley to get hit by! – Cort Ammon – 2019-07-15T06:12:47.257

Could you clarify "The tools of proof theory are not designed to work with that."? I don't have statistics but I would say that 90% of mathematicians never use any serious tools of proof theory in their research. Why would one expect it to be helpful to philosophers? – sis – 2019-07-15T13:42:59.090

2@loki Perhaps my wording there was imprecise. In that sentence I was referring to not just the tools used in proof theory itself, but their product, which are the tools used everywhere in mathematics for proofs. You can imagine how difficult it would be to start a cryptography proof with "Everyone has an intuitive sense of what prime numbers are, but to date nobody has been able to put forth a succinct definition for them." That's the kind of murkyness which appears in philosophy all the time, and which proofs have a difficult time dealing with. – Cort Ammon – 2019-07-15T14:58:33.010

I have proof. Much nonsense of the twentieth century could have been avoided had nineteenth century philosophers not vastly overstated their confidence level in their results. And the overstated confidence has not changed. – Joshua – 2019-07-15T15:12:50.390

@Joshua What are your assumptions regarding how to model the twentieth century when perturbing the nineteenth? =D – Cort Ammon – 2019-07-15T15:21:45.313

@CortAmmon: I've studied the juncture points. It's going to sound like handwaving, but it's not. The chain of events that lead to a Communist Russia are unlikely even though a revolution is likely. No Communist Russia->No Communist China (it's the smaller assumption that we still end up with a nasty dictator than we don't though)->No Domino theory->No Cuban Missile crisis. No decades long embargo of Cuba. Probably no US in the Vietnam war. But WWII is inevitable. – Joshua – 2019-07-15T15:49:08.940

5@Joshua Write that up in a formal mathematical proof and we can explore its validity =) In all seriousness, I am certain you've studied the topic more than I have, and your argument is more sound than any I might make. However, I also expect that if you were to put it into a formal mathematical proof in the form the OP is asking about, I'd be able to slaughter it by poking at the myriad assumptions. What you describe is probably an excellent example of why philosophy (or in your case, history) doesn't rely on something akin to mathematical proofs. – Cort Ammon – 2019-07-15T15:52:06.877

You may have a great deal of evidence to back up your assertion, but it will fall far short of what is expected from the standards of a mathematical proof. And that's okay. That's why history, as a discipline, is not reliant on mathematical proofs. – Cort Ammon – 2019-07-15T15:52:39.987

On the other hand, what I take objection to is philosophical claims like "God does not exist." or the brain in a vat hypothesis. – Joshua – 2019-07-15T15:56:05.737

Let us continue this discussion in chat.

– Cort Ammon – 2019-07-15T16:01:19.423

@loki Also, re-reading my answer and reminding myself of what I was trying to say, the reason I mentioned proof theory is that it starts to blur the line between philosophy and mathematics. Obviously its very tricky to write proofs about the most fundamental constructs in prof theory, so the arguments that must be made at that point turn more into prose and a philosophical argument as to why said constructions are a valid way to view the concept of proofs. – Cort Ammon – 2019-07-15T16:42:25.557

a) How much of proof theory is actually know and used by the average philosopher? b) When things get "murky", my experience is, that's precisely because the terms are not well-defined. And because of this, people jump to wrong conclusions. Take for example that stupid "proof" that there can be no omnipotent god because if there were, he would be able to create a stone he can't lift, so he can't be omnipotent. This argument only proves that the term "omnipotence" is badly defined. Much in the same way as the set of all sets that don't contain themselves (every mathematician knows about it). – cmaster - reinstate monica – 2019-07-16T22:52:14.627

@cmaster the difference is mathematics typically permits one to limit the domain to things that can be precisely defined, while a philosopher will continue to dabble outside. (and there's no reason you can't philosophize with math). For example, it's well recognized that "life" is ill defined, but we continue to study it with great fervor. – Cort Ammon – 2019-07-16T23:16:39.527

I'd add that some philosophical arguments are indeed presented with formal logic language, which, if that's what the OP refers to as "higher standards", would count. But I think what needs to be emphasized contrary to typical formal language "standards", in philosophy, is writing standards. On that department, I genuinely think there's a disturbingly low standard - even in classical philosophy papers! – Yechiam Weiss – 2019-07-18T15:47:28.707


If I'm understanding your question correctly, then you're basically asking "why doesn't philosophy have the same level of rigor as mathematical proof?"

I think there's two parts involved in answering this.

  1. First, one aspect of philosophy for many philosophers (arguably all) is that philosophy is actually a form of history, meaning we are studying ideas that someone else wrote about and discussing what is that they wrote and meant. This almost definitionally means there will be interpretive disagreements. (Contemporary analytic philosophy is no way exempt from continuing to do history).

  2. Second, rigor seems nice until you realize rigor is double-sided. The smaller the set of operators and values, the more rigor you can obtain, but the price is That the size of its domain is automatically smaller than what you can say or do with less rigor.

    For instance, how would you discuss with a mathematical proof whether mathematical proofs are sufficiently rigorous?


Posted 2019-07-15T05:04:41.987

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5"how would you discuss with a mathematical proof whether mathematical proofs are sufficiently rigorous?" It's not a valid question because there is a free variable. If there wasn't, you could actually tackle the question scientifically. But as long as you don't specify what you mean by "sufficiently", there cannot be a scientific answer and any attempt of providing an answer will be foiled and only yield at best a flawed answer. – UTF-8 – 2019-07-15T14:15:29.727

9I don't agree that philosophy is primarily a form of history. That might be true for the history of philosophy part of philosophy, but many philosophers do other, non-historical things. – Eliran – 2019-07-15T16:43:12.267

@Eliran at first I thought it was possible, but suggest a paper that is not also doing history. Find one with zero citations and zero reference to prior literature for its vocabulary and project. – virmaior – 2019-07-15T23:00:52.903

4@virmaior Papers in hard sciences (including the structural sciences) also refer to other papers, in part to avoid having to establish vocabulary again. But of course also to avoid having to define other things, as well as to give credit or just as references. You really wanna call everything with references in it "doing history"? – UTF-8 – 2019-07-15T23:16:38.893

@UTF-8 No, I don't. My use of "doing history" in the comment was perhaps inept, but the idea is that philosophy is always reflecting on someone's philosophy that came before and building from that. – virmaior – 2019-07-16T01:23:56.150

@UTF-8 But as long as you don't specify what you mean by "sufficiently" is part of my point rather than contrary to it. Mathematical proofs work because they define each term they use and each method in rather strict fashion. The domain of philosophy does not in general permit this level of definition because the things it wants to talk about are not that strictly understood. – virmaior – 2019-07-16T01:25:57.190

2@virmaior I would perhaps hazard a stronger claim - many things that were part of philosophy have been rigorously defined, and since then, left the realm of philosophy. What remains is the part we can't properly tackle yet, and the boiling pot of essentially random ideas and logic following from broad assumptions etc. Mathematics is a good example of how "worthless" logic (i.e. proper logic allows you to successfully argue for things that are completely wrong if you start with bad assumptions) can be tamed by a set of axioms. Philosophy of science did much the same for physics or chemistry. – Luaan – 2019-07-16T07:47:03.270


Philosophical theories are more like scientific theories than mathematical theories, in that they have empirical content. As such, there aren't any (universally agreed upon) "first principles" that must be respected. Any potential first principles might get discarded if the reasons for doing so are compelling enough. And even if there are some such principles (say, some nearly logical principles or the principle of sufficient reason) they wouldn't be strong enough to answer every interesting philosophical question that we might ask. We have to make "guesses" and test these guesses against our data and our intuitions. And making arguments as precise as mathematics requires solidifying our concepts with rigid definitions; but usually concepts are fluid and open to revision in light of new data. We don't always know what we're talking about at the beginning, so we give something a name and work towards a gradual understanding of it, rather than having a complete definition worked out from the start. (These points such as "no obvious first principles", no "rigid concepts", "gradual understanding", hold for science too, since you mentioned scientific communities in your question.)

I'm sympathetic to a formal approach myself, and I'm a metaphysical realist. To me this means, at a minimum, that there exists mind independent objects that bear real properties and stand in real relations to other objects; the world has structure. Our theories also have structure, and when the the structure of our theories match up with the structure of the world (our nouns name objects, our predicates name properties and relations in a structure-preserving ("isomorphic") way), it's true. But, merely formalizing our philosophical concepts wouldn't do much good in determining whether they match up to real objects/properties/relations, ie. whether some proposed theoretical objects are real or statements about them are true. For example, saying something about causation and then formalizing it wouldn't do much good in determining if our formal notion of causation corresponds to a real relation between events (or whether there even are real objects such as events). To decide that, we need to go out into the world and gather data.

There are some famous "formal proofs" in philosophy such as Gödel's ontological argument, but formalizing it doesn't make it true. Finding an interpretation of Gödel's "positive property" notion is not that easy, especially one that corresponds to all and only the divine attributes.

A quick Google search also turned this neat project up: A formalization of Spinoza's Ethics, Part 1: Consequences for interpretation. I admit I didn't read it, but the point is that just because Spinoza is made more precise and mathematical, it doesn't make it any more true. (It may be true, and formalizing might make it easy to understand or settle any ambiguities that might come up, but there's still the question about correspondence to reality).

Adam Sharpe

Posted 2019-07-15T05:04:41.987

Reputation: 3 594

As a side note, accepting the axioms in Gödel's ontological argument leads to a so-called "modal collapse" (as coined by Jordan Sobel), in which all contingent or possible truths must be necessarily true. Sobel's argument was formalized and computer-verified in 2014, confirming its validity. – probably_someone – 2019-07-15T20:16:50.873

5I also think the gist is not that philosophy is different, but that all other empirical fields are different to mathematics. Physics also has no proofs with the same rigor of mathematics - in the end we use Occams Razor more often than not to select a simpler theory in favor of a more complicated one, but that is just a best-effort which will hopefully lead us somewhere. – Falco – 2019-07-16T13:34:04.727


A proof is only as strong as the axioms it is built upon. Mathematics works over a very limited number of strong axioms to work with, which gives it a limited number* of things that can be proven, but the proofs are very strong thanks to the axioms they work with (and prior proofs relying on the same axioms).

Philosophy works with much broader field of ideas and does not always have strong axioms to anchor the thoughts in. This is not a mistake, nor a weakness, but a tradeoff. The broader is the scope of your work, the more likely you will have to settle for ideas that are not proven to be absolute fact.

Remember that the fact that an idea is not an absolute 100% true fact is not always a problem, provided it works well for building a construct. To give you math/physics analogy, Newtonian motion is known to be inaccurate, yet it's short of being really wrong. We still use it and it's quite handy.

It would be a shame to give up a thought that could reveal some important truth just because it's not absolute 100% verified truth.

* The limited number is infinity, but still a limited one much like the set of all even numbers.

Tomáš Zato - Reinstate Monica

Posted 2019-07-15T05:04:41.987

Reputation: 318

2That's what I would have said. You need incredibly strong axioms to build proof, and it's extremely hard to find any universal axiom in philosophy. Either your axioms will be very debatable, and every resulting conclusion can be dismissed if the axioms are rejected, or they'll be so basic that you can't build anything interesting on them (and they'll still be debatable). Spinoza tried using an axiom system, but they're rather vague and it's hard to say if you want to agree to them or not. Mathematical axioms seem much more intuitively "correct" – Teleporting Goat – 2019-07-15T15:21:06.437


Because it would then cease to be philosophy.

Philosophy sees itself as the progenitor of all the sciences, as its questions lead to the paradigm shifts upon which branches of science are founded. To limit itself to a predetermined set of rules would be to strip itself of the flexibility needed to come up with the next new thing.

In other words, it is precisely because it does not follow axioms and proofs of a specific scientific paradigm that it is able to come up with new ones.


Posted 2019-07-15T05:04:41.987

Reputation: 356

2One should note that all subject ARE NOT sciences. Many topics such as deductive reasoning can be done with or without any science. Many Philosophers consider philosophy an art and others a science. There is a distinction between an art and science. – Logikal – 2019-07-15T16:57:22.347

@someguy632, you are using the term philosophy in a too generous way. With your context then almost everything is a philosophy which is not a good thing to old school philosophers. It's like saying anyone can do what you do. So no everything is not philosophy nor is everyone a philosopher. There has to be other way to Express and name ideas besides just philosophy. How about bee waxing instead of philosophy? No professional in any field wants to hear everyone can do what you do easily. – Logikal – 2019-07-16T18:01:58.430

@some_guy632, I did take the idea of Philosophy in a formal sense & pointed out many people take the open sense where all is philosophy & we all are philosophers. This I take is a mistake. Philosophy doesn't mean philosophers are the ONLY rational human beings. You Express that other humans can rationalize --not necessarily do philosophy. Often times terminology causes problems as here with logic & argumentation. Some terms are used in different contexts in a particular field. So authorities have some play here why this is still an issue today. There are many egos involved to resolve I guess. – Logikal – 2019-07-16T18:33:21.417

@Logikal I have never seen a philosopher that actually thought of philosophy as an art. Can you give me any examples for my edification? – Carduus – 2019-07-16T18:35:04.697

@Carudus, I would say Plato, Descartes, Kant, or any rationalist philosopher one can Google. There is a struggle within some philosophers with the art and science.one cant love two Gods (subjects). One can venture off into other topics while studying philosophy. The can loose their way and spend more time with the OTHER topic. Some concepts are not applied universally even when the terms look identical and spelled the same. – Logikal – 2019-07-16T18:41:40.230

1@Logikal Philosophy OF Art is very different than Philosophy AS Art. It sounds like we may be talking about very different things. – Carduus – 2019-07-16T18:45:58.777

@Carduus, we may be. I would say the mindset going in makes the difference. Just as i would say some BOXERS are artist and NOT just ATHLETIC combatants. The physical aspects are like drugs. Thw side effect dont last very long. TIME & Age will beat the physical only method. – Logikal – 2019-07-16T18:50:10.697

@some_guy643, with reason people can do all sorts of things. Philosophy requires making clear distinctions between things. Everyone is not doing this one task needed very well even though they can reason. Psychology has a lot to.do with it. Many people can't distinguish philosophy from Psychology or pure deductive logic & mathematics. You make it seem easier than reality. I think more details are left out which would make reality more difficult. You may not be including QUALITY along with the end of the day results. Quality makes a difference. – Logikal – 2019-07-16T18:59:20.227


Often, when a useful higher standard for arguments is discovered, a brand new field of study is created based on that higher standard, or maybe a subfield/subtopic of an existing field of study. For example, the study of physical sciences replaced the study of natural philosophy, and the study of the infinite is a mathematical topic.

Since the arguments being held to a higher standard tend to fall into these other fields, the things we still call philosophy are much more likely not to be held to such.


Posted 2019-07-15T05:04:41.987



Another thing I would add is that proofs are built on strong axioms, but also on precise definitions.

It's hard to find a precise and universally accepted definition for any complex concept in philosophy.

  • What is life? Soul? What is a cause, an action? What is truth?

Those are a much harder to define than a point, a circle or a function (not that they're easy either)

You can't build any sort of proof if everyone doesn't agree on a definition. And your can make you own, but anyone can reject your conclusion if they don't agree to your axioms or definitions.

Spinoza tried a system of axioms for his Ethics, if you want to what it looks like.

Teleporting Goat

Posted 2019-07-15T05:04:41.987

Reputation: 161

Here is a problem. Your definitions are not REQUIRED to reflect reality. I don't know what strong axioms are. All scientific axioms can be falsified so this does not guarantee solid proofs in mathematics and in reality simultaneously. – Logikal – 2019-07-15T16:51:24.447

Euclid didn’t have strong definitions of “point,” “line” or ”number.” His axioms only defined what operations you are allowed to perform on them (although a few of his proofs end up handwaving). Later mathematicians were able to define non-Euclidian geometries where a “point” or “line” mean something different but (most of) the same axioms hold. A lot of mathematics looks for similar structure of very different things, and ends up defining relations between abstract objects that don’t presuppose what those objects are. For example, theorems about vectors can apply to function spaces. – Davislor – 2019-07-15T18:08:33.173

I can’t think of an example of philosophers doing that either, though. Maybe there is a philosophical work that generalizes some complex theory of, say, epistemology and shows that the structure of its proofs translates equally well into ethics. – Davislor – 2019-07-15T18:13:04.800

2@Davislor I disagree. Euclid's definitions of point and line (not sure where he defined "number") were strong because the objects themselves were abstracted away to the point where a list of operations completely determined the relevant characteristics of those objects. That, if I recall, was the whole point of considering abstractions in the first place. Maybe you have a different definition of "strong" than I do, though (in that case, you shouldn't make such unequivocal claims like "Euclid didn't have strong defintions" without first making clear what you think a strong definition is). – probably_someone – 2019-07-15T20:21:25.517

@probably_someone Good catch; I meant to echo the answer’s “precise definitions” but got mixed up with “strong axioms.” But I’d say that his definition of “line” was imprecise enough that it can mean something completely different in spherical geometry, and all but one of his axioms can still hold. – Davislor – 2019-07-15T20:25:35.120

1@Davislor I would still argue that "imprecise" and "abstract" are completely different. In my experience, a definition is "precise" if its application completely specifies all relevant properties of an object, whereas a definition is "abstract" if it does not specify all properties of an object. When not all of the properties of an object are relevant (i.e. almost all of the time), you can have definitions that are simultaneously precise and abstract. – probably_someone – 2019-07-15T20:29:37.937

@Davislor For example, suppose I wanted to you go get a basketball from the other side of the room (which also contained a chair), and you asked me to define the object you were getting. A non-abstract definition would be "The 10^24 atoms that currently occupy the following positions and velocities: ..." (Non-abstract definitions are necessarily precise, since specifying all properties also specifies all relevant properties.) An abstract precise definition would be "the spherical object at the other side of the room". An abstract imprecise definition would be "the thing over there". – probably_someone – 2019-07-15T20:35:28.883

@probably_someone In that sense, the definitions in Euclid are more like you gave me instructions that, if I were on a basketball court, I’d interpret as getting the basket “ball” and “dribbling” it over with my hands, then “shooting” it into “the net,” and if I were on a soccer field, I’d interpret as putting the soccer ball into the goal with my feet. That’s not what I mean when I say, “precise,” although I guess either means precisely what it means and nothing more. – Davislor – 2019-07-15T20:39:50.523

@Davislor So what do you mean when you say "precise"? We can't really have a useful discussion here unless you make your definition clear, because at this point I'm not quite sure where in particular your objection lies. There are some objects for whom all relevant properties are a list of operations you can perform; for physical objects, this is not usually (i.e. almost never) the case. – probably_someone – 2019-07-15T21:50:10.707

In this context, I mean that many definitions I use in mathematics are abstract enough that they could refer to many different things. If you told me that a “soul” in some theory is something that exists in time but not space, has a beginning but no end, can experience sensations, and is either attached to a human body or to nothing, I don’t think someone unfamiliar with our culture’s myths about the afterlife would have a clear idea what we were talking about. But that would be well-defined enough that we could prove some statements about them. – Davislor – 2019-07-15T22:00:14.907

Or to come at it from another direction, mathematics tries to define a lot of abstractions so that you prove a theorem about the abstraction and it applies to many different kinds of objects. Peano arithmetic never defined what natural numbers were, but just took it as an axiom that a number exists. The generally-accepted model in ZF set theory gets more specific and defines it in terms of sets, but sets are these abstract entities that can contain other sets (with certain qualifications to avoid Russell’s paradox) and you can do things with them like specification.. – Davislor – 2019-07-15T22:07:10.183

The definitions I’ve seen in philosophy don’t resemble that very much. Do philosophers generally make abstract statements about ambiguous entities that have only the properties they need, with those properties defined unambiguously, then apply the same proof in very different contexts? There might be a good example I’’m not thinking of. As a layman, I’m only able to think of simple stuff like, “two people deserve the same treatment.” – Davislor – 2019-07-15T22:17:28.120


Let us continue this discussion in chat.

– probably_someone – 2019-07-16T08:20:11.753


What is stopping the philosophical community from holding themselves to the same standard?

The impression that the philosophers' "standards" are not sufficiently high, I think, is due to (1) the apparent lack of progress in solving philosophical puzzles in conjunction with (2) the deceiving simplicity of these puzzles.

  1. In fact, nothing stops the philosophical community from achieving clarity, rigor and conclusivity. A systematic application of sophisticated logical tools to common philosophical problems over the course of the past century have lead to an enormous transformation in our ways of handling them. At least some "classical problems of philosophy" (the problem of universals, for example) have been solved. At the same time, the "standards" really have become much higher. Overall, it may seem that philosophers do not really advance — only because the advancement is piecemeal and unrushed.

  2. The impression that philosophical problems are "easy" stems from the very high general intelligibility of the words used to state them. In fact, there are terribly complex — they are about thinking itself. However, consider the Fermat Last Theorem, which statement sounds incredibly simple. Still, it took 358 years to establish that there is indeed no three integers a, b, с that satisfy a^n + b^n = c^n if n is integer and greater than two. There is no reason to think that philosophical problems can be solved any faster — they deal not with the properties of relatively simple objects, but with the thinking itself.


Posted 2019-07-15T05:04:41.987

Reputation: 53

I really like the spirit of this answer, but I'm curious what you mean when you say the problem of universals is solved. I thought this is still an open problem. I know it's a bit tangential to the original question, but would you mind saying a bit more about this? – Adam Sharpe – 2019-07-24T14:46:18.853


The mathematical community has proofs

Please note that some of the best practitioners of mathematics disparage proofs. Lefzchetz, for example, told his students not to just present pretty new proofs (they probably already knew that they ought not to present ugly ones!). He wanted new substantiatial new ideas. Poincare was similarly disparaging in his book Geometry and the Imagination, where he placed the mathematical imagination - that is induction, most broadly understood (it ought not to be confused with mathematical induction) on a higher plane than that of deduction - the bread and butter of proofs.

Different communities of thinking have different ways of assessing ideas. This is why philosophical argument does not look like mathematical argument. They are addressing different questions with different standards of argument - that is reasoning - and not proof.

Mozibur Ullah

Posted 2019-07-15T05:04:41.987

Reputation: 1


The mistake here, I think, is that the question assumes that philosophy is simply another field of research on par with mathematics, physics, or whatnot. But philosophy is actually the superset: the basic mode of reasoning and logic that other fields implement to create their more exacting and specific rule-sets. In this sense, mathematics is the philosophy of numbers, physics is the philosophy of massy objects, political theory is the philosophy of governmental structures, etc. This is the original justification behind giving the most experienced practitioners in a field the title 'Doctor of Philosophy' (PhD); the idea is that such people are in a position to wrestle with the fundamental definitions of their particular field, beyond rote application of the principles.

Systematic rigor, epistemic foundationalism, or whatever other term you might want to use here are only 'higher standards' in the sense that they have closed off a particular paradigm as useful for a particular purpose. They are a toolbox designed for a specific set of acts, but like any toolbox they restrict the person carrying them to performing those acts. A carpenter's toolbox is not much use in an auto shop; a physicist's toolbox is not much use in political science. And if we want to make such a toolbox useful in a mismatched arena, we have to step back and reconceptualize the nature of all the tools in the box to make them applicable.

That's philosophy.

Bertrand Russell and the Logical Positivists tried very hard to 'mathematize' philosophy — to give it exactly the kind of rigor and epistemological foundations that you are talking about — and ultimately failed, for all their accomplishments. The mathematics toolbox did not suffice to create a general framework for philosophical questions.

Ted Wrigley

Posted 2019-07-15T05:04:41.987

Reputation: 9 139


"This is the original justification behind giving the most experienced practitioners in a field the title 'Doctor of Philosophy'" [citation needed]. Wikipedia's description (with citations) is that the modern PhD began in German universities, where the faculty of philosophy essentially covered everything that wasn't law, medicine or theology. Had it begun in, say, British universities, it would probably have been called Doctor of Arts (or even just Master of Arts).

– David Richerby – 2019-07-15T18:23:57.123

I find it difficult when people invert methodology. Setting aside that you're citing Wikipedia, which is problematic in its own way... What's your point? Do you recognize that I could delete the line you're referring to without changing the nature or meaning of my post in the slightest? Is this a mere quibble, or do you think that you're saying something more significant? Evidence is only useful in the development of an argument. You haven't made an argument (aside from momentary speculation), or addressed the argument I made, so I don't know what to do with this. – Ted Wrigley – 2019-07-15T18:38:08.930

Your answer contains an unsupported claim which I don't think is true. If you feel that deleting that claim would make no significant difference to your answer, then I suggest that you do so. – David Richerby – 2019-07-15T18:41:16.923

I'll reflect on that. I actually do think the point is true; the question in my mind is whether it's interesting and pertinent enough to argue over. – Ted Wrigley – 2019-07-15T19:15:09.127

Well you obviously thought it was interesting and pertinent enough to put it in your answer. I just don't understand your position, here. You basically seem to be dismissing me out of hand for arguing about some triviality, which would be fine if I'd invented that topic of discussion, but I didn't! – David Richerby – 2019-07-15T19:41:54.183

As I said, my difficulty was with your use of an evidence claim outside of an argument structure. Think of it this way: if some random person walked up to you on the street and said 'show me your ID,' you'd want to know why he wants to see it. In his mind that ID is (obviously) evidence of something, but without knowing what that something is, you don't know whether it's correct, wise, or useful to show the ID. If I don't know what argument you're trying to make, how should I know how to respond to an evidence claim? so yeah, I dismiss such out of hand. – Ted Wrigley – 2019-07-15T20:02:46.070

I'm not coming up to you in the street apropos of nothing. I'm challenging something that you wrote. – David Richerby – 2019-07-15T20:11:56.653

4@TedWrigley So you claim something to be true, but you're not going to cite a source for it, even when challenged? That's usually what people do when a claim is false, which is why you're getting this response. – probably_someone – 2019-07-15T20:24:31.883

@David Richerby: again, if you don't care to specify what argument you are trying to make, then your objection in meaningless. All you've said is that the PhD designation began in German universities, and that you don't believe it would have happened in anglophone universities. But that doesn't even negate my point about the PhD designation, much less impact on my larger argument. If you don't like my view, more power to you. But I have no interest in guessing what you're going on about. – Ted Wrigley – 2019-07-15T20:44:56.527

For the nth time, I'm asking you to back up the argument that you made. I don't have to offer an alternative argument. I am making a very simple request that is explicitly clear. Stop pretending that you don't understand. – David Richerby – 2019-07-17T13:50:46.640

[shrug] You can make this demand as many times as you like, but until you give me a reason to respond to it, you're SOL. (1) I've made a reasonable inference from the information I have to hand; (2) the point is not important enough for me to spend a lot of time on; (3) I sense you are deliberately misreading my post, which makes further argument problematic. If you don't like my inference, make a different one and justify it yourself. Do it well and I'll cede the point (I respect good reasoning). But please don't demand that I do your thinking for you. – Ted Wrigley – 2019-07-17T14:28:48.240

I would just like to point out the irony of somebody spending 420 words to argue that justifying a claim in their 290-word answer "isn't important enough... to spend a lot of time on" and the further irony of somebody repeatedly refusing to justify an argument in response to a question about the standard of argument in philosophy. I'm done here. – David Richerby – 2019-07-17T20:12:32.597

[shrug] I was trying to give you the benefit of the doubt, and see if you had a serious objection. Pardon me for being respectful. – Ted Wrigley – 2019-07-17T20:53:11.163


I'm reminded by an inaugural lecture by a Professor of Physics (A. B. Pippard) who posed the question "what is physics", and ended up defining it as "that subset of science which is completely understood", pointing out that when parts of chemistry or astronomy become sufficiently well understood, they get reclassified as physics. Arguably the subset of physics that is completely indisputable similarly gets reclassified as mathematics.

Mathematics is only useful for arguing about the real world when you can reduce the real world to formal abstractions that behave in a predictable and logical way. Philosophy is (often) concerned with discussing what those abstractions should be and whether they are valid.

And of course large parts of philosophy are concerned with questions such as justice, ethics, and politics, where (a) reasoning about cause and effect is never going to be 100% provable (because you can't do the experiments), and (b) half the discussion is about what we want to achieve, not how to achieve it.

Michael Kay

Posted 2019-07-15T05:04:41.987

Reputation: 131

Physics never gets reclassified as mathematics. Math is a technique that is widely used in physics, and completely indisputable subsets of physics are often very heavy in math, but alone, math is totally abstract and says nothing about the world. – forest – 2019-07-17T03:14:18.733

Yes, but there are whole areas of mathematics (consider probability theory, calculus, even Euclidean geometry) that developed empirically to solve real world problems, and only later became formal enough to regard as pure mathematics. – Michael Kay – 2019-07-17T07:06:20.930


Traditionally, mathematics was far less formalized than now, and even when rigor was shockingly lacking (like in the beginning of calculus) and mathematicians didn’t yet possess crisp concepts it still produced insanely much more consensus and progress to virtually undeniable truths than philosophy. I guess it has something to do with the fact that mathematical concepts are way more interconnected and can be looked upon / approached from a multitude of different perspectives. So you simply do not get that far in mathematics with bad reasoning than in philosophy.

As a last resort, mathematics is also an applied discipline: Even if math and stats professors have been tripped up by the Monty Hall problem – you can try it out! This is not possible in philosophy. There is not even a clear standard what it might mean when the application of a philosophical theory fails. Sure, “Marxism failed” is a pretty good argument for many people, but it lacks the decisiveness of failure in applied mathematics … when planes crash.


Posted 2019-07-15T05:04:41.987

Reputation: 3 455


Well it depends a lot on what kind of philosophy you're doing. The most important split in this case is that between Analytic Philosophy and Continental Philosophy.

Analytics generally are much more concerned with standards of proof, rigorous argumentation, logic, and the like. Think Bertrand Russell. For this type of philosophy, you generally actually do have to make arguments logically formalized and completely watertight.

However, this approach, while it is precise and powerful for certain kinds of questions, cannot answer everything. This is why Continental exists. Let's say I want to answer, for example, "What does the logical desire betoken?" Well I am in fact problematizing the very feeling of need to achieve truth through logical argument, so if I required myself to use logical argument to answer it, I would be operating within that sphere I wished to question. This would be a mistake.

Finally, I wish to appeal to the obvious fact that you can know things---and even, that you can partake of Truth---without logical proof. And many true things cannot be proved (ironically, this last statement actually can be logically proved; it's called Godel's Incompleteness Theorem). Therefore, truth and knowledge does not always require logic.


Posted 2019-07-15T05:04:41.987

Reputation: 31


As well as concurring with @Carduus's answer, let's just look at this one statement:

The same general principles that apply to thinking about the abstract objective universe should also apply to the concrete objective universe.

  • "concrete objective universe": The sheer existence of this is itself a question not just for philosophy, but physics as well
  • Any statements on the supposed concrete objective universe are model dependent and therefore immediately subjective.
  • It would be nice to know how Ethics, for example, fits in a notion of "Concrete Objective Universe"

Even in Physics, one does not prove things about the world. You create models, prove consequences within those models, and then use that to provide predictions about the world. (Questions on the need for these to be falsifiable or not are outside the scope of this thread.)


Posted 2019-07-15T05:04:41.987

Reputation: 141

As Descartes reasoned, something must exist as there is at least something that imagines writing/reading these lines... But it's true that physicists are more concerned with what they can measure than with what might be "true". They are just looking for the most simple mathematical models that are sufficient to predict the measurements. And if the measurements become weird (like there being no ether drift), new theories must be formulated and tested by measurement. The concrete objective universe may be out there, but we stick to what we can measure and to the models we fail to falsify. – cmaster - reinstate monica – 2019-07-16T23:19:19.227


It wouldn't be philosophy if it uses math. It would be math (or applied math).

What is Philosophy?

Go to any philosophy website (like this one, or SEP), or read philosophy text books or notes -there is one thing which is strikingly common. The usage of natural language.

There are things which aren't developed enough, or not clear enough to allow us to use exact frameworks. We therefore have no choice but to use vague frameworks like natural language to discuss them. This vagueness allows us to discuss. This act of discussion in natural language is philosophy.

If you use math, there are rules, and once you have agreed upon rules, you know the result -what's there to talk about? You don't agree with my mathematical result? Fair enough. Now you want to use some other exact framework like mathematics -go ahead and you are back to where you started. Moreover, mathematics is a logical treatment on complex things. It doesn't tells you what is right. It just tells you that if you believe in your axioms, then following things hold true -on account of being logical consequences. We require natural language for debating, discussing and resolving issues which otherwise cannot be resolved. That's what philosophy is about.

When you are not stating facts or objectively describing the state of affairs, you are technically engaging in philosophy.

Also, read Wittgenstein's works.


Posted 2019-07-15T05:04:41.987

Reputation: 759


Mathematical logic has axioms and/or assumptions as the foundation. I am not clear what you mean by SOUND ARGUMENT. If you as a math person require sense verifiable objects and awareness of truth value, you have made a nonsensical statement. Sense verification is needed for Mathematical truth but you want SOUND ARGUMENTS?

An issue is existential import and objective knowledge. How do we know objectively there are no unicorns? How does one disprove the proposition? All a sense verifiable person can do is require a single instance for a proposition to be true. We don't always have that luxury in reality.

Now I come to YOUR ASSUMPTIONS or AXIOMS in Mathematics. You are NOT saying x is a True proposition outright. You are being slick by placing it in a conditional form (if . . . Then . . . ). This way you can't be said to be WRONG or mistaken as it was just an assumption anyway. Philosophers often have a backbone. If I make a proposition I have to own it if I end up being wrong. If I say all swans are white and someone finds black swans in Australia my position is busted. Too many busted attempts lower my standings in a social circle whether you want to omit this fact folks. ( If I give you wrong directions two times most practical people will not ask me for directions a third time to see if I get it right.) Back to my point: saying x is a true proposition is CLEARLY not as psychological as If x is true then something else is true. You save yourself from embarrassment because you never committed to any REAL CLAIM in REALITY and said nothing basically. If I am wrong with a proposition, then judgement of me and the claim follows. When you blunder you cover it with that huge IF.

Help me understand what you mean by SOUND ARGUMENT when the fact is that many people fail to have a back bone to make a CLAIM about reality? For instance, my proposition IF there were unicorns in New York, they would all be white animals DOES NOT make a claim about reality. How is this format (IF . . .THEN . . .) you run to so reliable and SOUND? We know sometimes this works and other times it fails. If it fails even 1 percent it is not absolute or certain. Science has the same issue. So math taking the scientific approach may be a mistake. You both have the same issue. Senses can be wrong.

I am also a bit confused about the terms ASSUMPTION and Axiom, which where I am from, DOES NOT designate you have any awareness of the ACTUAL TRUTH VALUE. Science can demonstrate all dogs are animals. I do not need an IF Statement to cover myself like you would. I would just have a back bone and say out loud All dogs are animals & accept the backlash or correction when it arrives. You seem to want to avoid all of this action. Pretty slick to me. I find it a bit odd to say Mathematical logic is sound as you say because you can't even tell me upfront if the assumption is TRUE. I guess then it would not be an assumption huh? MAKE A CLAIM not a way out if you are wrong. For an argument to be SOUND the premises MUST BE TRUE -- not kind of iffy, kind of true, possibly true, I am not sure if it's TRUE, etc. Its ironic you want sound arguments but start with a claim you are not certain of. Make a claim first! Tell me the proposition you begin with IS TRUE absolutely. That is all I ask and then we can work on building a SOUND ARGUMENT.

Your understanding of the term proposition is not on par with old school philosophy. All propositions are expressions that have a TRUTH VALUE. Your problem as well as the scientific problem is without sense verification you take the liberty to say a proposition has a false TRUTH VALUE or better yet the UNKNOWN VALUE. Let me get this correct, because you don't know it or have sense verification the value is NOW unknown? The proposition Jimmy Hofa is buried at Shea Stadium under home plate is FALSE because there is no evidence right NOW? I capitalized NOW because time can change as well as technology. Suppose tomorrow Hofa's body was found. What was scientifically FALSE or UNKNOWN magically has another TRUTH VALUE. Is science and math magic? A more rational approach would be the proposition about Hofa being buried was OBJECTIVELY true or false from the beginning --regardless of time or technology. Because YOU WERE UNAWARE of the truth value does not dismiss the actual value nor does new information CREATE A truth value from nothing.

I am not sure what you mean by Sound argument when there is little accountability when there is an error and no necessary commitment to say something about reality. Axioms by definition often fail the sense verification requirements that WAS used about unicorn propositions. I guess we will let that slide and say its objective knowledge. Can other types of reasoning outside of math be useful yes. Is mathematics the most useful? No. The starting point is the problem-- as is the argument of GOD. I can prove almost anything if we always take the assumption as truth. We would have to question what is truth and define truth I reckon at some point. We can all agree bad assumptions will make poor reasoning about reality. What do we do when we assume the negative? Often times we lose our trail and the case goes cold. This further would put you in a place where you dont want to put yourself out in the wind for judgment, but what do I know. I know nothing: as I can't prove most things I claim to KNOW sufficiently and I can never be wrong if I never make a statement about reality; and knowledge is demonstrated by expressing some kind of claim. Expressing something I am uncertain about does not seem a method that gives me 100 percent accuracy.


Posted 2019-07-15T05:04:41.987

Reputation: 409


Any axiomatic system has serious limitations , see Godel incompleteness theorem and related results. The vagueness of language, on which philosophy is based, is its strength, not its weakness. This is the only way to circumvent the serious limitations imposed by any rigid axiomatic system (which can be modelled by a Turing machine). The notions of mistake/error are underestimated , yes, they can lead you astray, but they can also lead you to the truth (with a nonzero probability). On the other hand, an axiomatic system will never lead you to the truth if it's not already "contained" (as a figure of speech ) in its axioms. Of course, that doesn't mean that perpetual nonsense is recommended, it's a matter of moderation.

Cristian Dumitrescu

Posted 2019-07-15T05:04:41.987

Reputation: 147