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School of Social Sciences

Controversial philosophy

Philosopher Helen Beebee is Samuel Hall Professor of Philosophy at The University of Manchester. We met Helen to talk about her research, why we need universities, and why philosophy is a more controversial subject than many of us realise.

Our talk turns to controversy straightaway, on the subject of Helen’s current research project on the analytic philosopher David Lewis. Lewis was a major figure in late twentieth century analytic philosophy and Helen’s project team aims to make his letters public, alongside a history of how Lewis’s thought fits in with his contemporaries. Lewis is famous for views that are considered eccentric by some other philosophers.

“He has a view about when we use words like ‘could’ and ‘might’,” says Helen, “like ‘I might have gone to the shops’ or ‘I might have had a different career’ or you might regret something because you feel like there’s something else you could have done. Lewis had this view where you analyse all of those claims in terms of possible worlds, which are kind of like alternative universes. So when you say ‘I could have been a train driver’ or ‘I could have been a doctor’, what you’re saying is there’s another possible world that’s got me - or rather, someone just like me - in it that is a doctor or a train driver. This is a really useful tool for understanding claims of what might have happened or what could have happened or what’s impossible and what’s possible. The really odd thing about Lewis’s view is that he thinks of all of these possible worlds as real. The tables and chairs and people are just as real as we are, and there are gajillions of them, infinitely many. Bit of a crazy view! 

“So that raises questions about philosophical methods. Here we are, we’ve now got this view that explains things that otherwise it would be really hard to understand. On the other hand, in order to buy that story, you have to believe in all of these alternative universes. And this is something that philosophers worry about a lot. When you’ve got a really nice theory on the table, there’s a trade-off because you have to believe in all this apparently crazy stuff in order to believe the theory. You really want to believe the theory but does the fact that it’s a good theory make it OK to believe in all of those things?”

Time travel

Lewis is also known for work on time travel, most famously the ‘Grandfather Paradox’, (a term that comes from science fiction). 

“There’s a question about whether you could, if time travel was possible, in principle go back to the past and kill your own grandfather. That is philosophically a really puzzling thing. How could it be that you could go back in time and do something that would then stop you existing? Philosophers worry about these things - and philosophers often like science fiction. Some people have used that to argue that time travel isn’t possible, because if it was possible then some contradiction could be true – if you killed your own grandfather before he’d even met your grandmother, then you can’t exist; but you must exist because it was you who pulled the trigger! – so Lewis tries to solve that problem. He also wrote lots of things that are really well known in linguistics about the way that language works. He wrote a lot about the nature of causality and freedom of the will and laws of nature – things that philosophers are interested in. So he was a really interesting and important figure in twentieth century philosophy and the thought behind the project is that in 100 years’ time when people are writing the history of 20th century analytic philosophy he’s going to be one of the major figures they’re going to be studying.”

Man in old-fashioned clothes walking down a road

The 'Grandfather Paradox' has influenced philosophical debate on time travel.

Talk of alternate worlds, time travel and the continuation of the history of philosophy, leads us to wonder whether anything in philosophy has ever been completely debunked. Is philosophy on a similar curve to other kinds of thought, where what we thought we knew can quickly become defunct? Helen thinks not (necessarily):

“This goes back to the method question. We don’t have experiments really in philosophy and that makes things difficult. Everything in philosophy’s controversial; you can’t say anything that a large number of people are going to agree with. Science has evidence – you have a theory, you make some predictions, someone runs the experiment, the experiment shows the predictions are false, there’s something wrong with the theory. You can’t really do that in philosophy because when you say, for example, this theory implies that other possible worlds exist, we can’t do any experiments to find out whether they exist.

“If you look at what people generally believed 100 years ago in philosophy, a lot of it was really different. The dominant views about what the world’s like were really different to now. Have those views been refuted? I kind of think ‘no’. Everybody just got a bit bored and moved on to something else. There’s much less of a sense of linear progression in philosophy than there is in science. It’s part of the reason why people do still study Plato and Aristotle. There are still useful and interesting things that you can learn from them, unlike if you go back to Ptolemaic astronomy where we know that those views were completely false.”

Philosophy's place in public life

As well as the controversies within philosophy, there is the controversial status of the discipline itself and its place in public life. Philosophy can interact well with other forms of thought, or it can bristle when other disciplines seem to tread on its toes:

“Philosophy does intersect quite well with a whole bunch of other disciplines”, says Helen, “because most disciplines, when people get on the more theoretical end of them, do start asking questions that are a really long way from the evidence. There are people who will do philosophy of physics for example, or philosophy of psychology, or psychiatry, all these sorts of things.

“For example, there are really big issues in psychiatry about how you classify psychiatric disorders. In particular, one of the issues is about whether you should classify them on the basis of behavioural characteristics, or based on neuroscience, according to brain differences. That’s really a philosophical question. Just doing more neuroscience or getting clearer on the ways that people behave is not going to answer that question about how we should carve up our categories of disorder.

“You do sometimes get people in science making pseudo-philosophical claims that the evidence doesn’t justify.”

“You do sometimes get people in science making pseudo-philosophical claims that the evidence doesn’t justify. This happens a lot in neuroscience. About every three years – and the media love all this stuff – some neuroscientist will say ‘I’ve shown that free will doesn’t exist.’ They run some experiments – and they are fantastic experiments, and they’re getting more interesting as neuroscience progresses. You can wire someone’s brain up to a thing that’s monitoring their brain activity, you can ask them to choose between two things and - this is a very rough way of putting it - you can kind of predict which way they’re going to jump before they’ve consciously decided. It’s really interesting, but does it prove there’s no free will? That’s a massive philosophical question and I think the answer to that question is ‘no’. There are various views that you could take that are entirely consistent with getting that result and people still having free will.

“People get the impression that science is answering all of the questions that used to be the preserve of philosophy. Sometimes it’s true, but a lot of the time it’s just not true, they’re making a whole bunch of really controversial philosophical assumptions without even stating them and then wheeling out the results. The whole point of philosophy is to figure out whether those assumptions are true in the first place.”

Donald Trump and the truth

For Helen, Donald Trump and his relationship with the truth are a good example of why philosophy and deeper analytic thought in general are vital in our time of kneejerk social media posting:

“One of the things that’s really interesting about Donald Trump is he doesn’t seem to care whether what he says is true or not. There’s a violation of a standard that almost everybody abides by in their normal life which is ‘don’t say stuff unless you really believe it’. Even when you’re lying, you’re still displaying awareness that truth is the thing that we all think we’re aiming at. He just says stuff in order to make himself look good. That’s a really corrosive thing to do. If that becomes the norm, that’s it, democracy’s dead, public debate’s dead, we might as well all just sit at home and send horrible tweets out to each other. This is a part of what universities are about. It’s learning that nothing good will ever happen if you just say stuff without any evidence. You need to be sensitive to other people criticising you and pointing out that you’re wrong on various things. He’s just not playing that game and it’s horrifying.”

Find out more about Philosophy at The University of Manchester.