Articles

Why Our Philosophical Thinking is Inherently Flawed (and How to Fix it)

There is an insidious presence in our normal mode of thinking – an illusory way of looking at the world that we all succumb to, and which, if unnoticed, can lead us into deep mires of intellectual confusion.

The problem is that we are all natural-born ‘essentialists’ – that is, we intrinsically attribute absolute essences to the objects of our conceptual, or epistemological landscapes: from sand and goats, to the self and gravity.

This quality served us well in our evolutionary past, but is now a significant impediment to our ability to understand the world in a truly accurate way.

Our essentialist intuitions lead us down garden paths of bad philosophy, into tempting quagmires of paradox and confusion, and ultimately, towards rash and misguided conclusions.

The field of philosophy is littered with the beguiling traces of humanity’s innate essentialism – most visibly in the explicitly essentialist philosophies, like Plato’s ‘Forms’, but if you look hard enough, you can find traces of its pernicious presence in even the most careful modern thought in science and philosophy.

Of course, this ‘bad philosophy’, doesn’t only pertain to Philosophy with a capital P; I’m also talking about philosophy in the more general sense – regarding our everyday conceptions, or interpretations of every aspect of the world around us, from the mundane to the profound.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that an understanding of our essentialist intuitions and how to avoid the pitfalls they create, is one of the most important tools for thinking about the nature of – well, anything – that one can possess.

In order to see what I mean when I refer to our ‘essentialist intuitions’, we need a demonstration. We need to actually bring them under the harsh light of our scrutiny by enticing them into view with a thought experiment.

The ship of Theseus

The Ship of Theseus is an ancient thought experiment that has been considered for millennia, by countless notable philosophers and scholars, from Plutarch, to Plato, to John Locke.

It runs something like this: if the Ship of Theseus has, say, a single wooden slat replaced, it’s still Theseus’ ship, right?

But what if we replace a second slat? And a third slat? What if we replace a mast? In fact – suppose over the years we gradually replace every single individual component of the ship.

The question remains: is it still the Ship of Theseus? Think about it for a moment.

Perhaps you are inclined to suppose that it is still Theseus’ ship – but what if you were then shown another ship, built from all of the parts that had been replaced on the ‘original’: which of the two is Theseus’ ship?

There are different variants of the thought experiment – for example, John Locke pondered the scenario of his favourite sock having patches sewn onto it whenever it develops a hole. When the original material of the sock has been completely replaced, is it still his favourite sock?

Being the wily erudite you are, you declare that ‘Locke’s Favourite Sock’ acquires that status simply by virtue of Locke’s belief about it, so the ‘replaced’ sock is still ‘Locke’s Favourite Sock’ because he believes it to be so.

But then, suppose a ‘sartorial demon’ steals into his room one night and replaces his sock with an identical replica without Locke’s knowledge – is this now ‘Locke’s Favourite Sock’? And if so, does it acquire that classification as soon as the demon has replaced it, or does the magical shift in identity happen when next John looks favourably upon the imposter sock, unwittingly verifying its ontological status as ‘His Favourite Sock’?

When you first hear a variant of this ‘paradox’, your initial reaction may well be one of confusion, or perhaps even profound shock – as though you had seen a glimmer of some deep mystery of the universe.

In that case, what you experienced was a visceral clash with your own essentialist intuition, as the logical progression of the paradox leads you into a confrontation with an underlying assumption you had subconsciously made.

You see, what may have happened, is that you had conferred an absolute ontological existence onto the concept of ‘The Ship of Theseus’ (or ‘Locke’s favourite sock’); that is, you had implicitly asserted, without question, a kind of free-floating, metaphysical reality to each of these concepts – something like Plato’s perfect forms; the substance, or essence that underlies something.

We fickle humans have a natural tendency to impute this kind of absolute existence automatically, and perhaps there is good reason for this. We evolved in an environment where it really only made sense for our brains to deal in the absolute existence of things; something was either real, in which case it had some bearing on our survival and/or reproduction, or it was not real. To resist this binary categorization would not be very beneficial for our genes – after all, if a hunter gatherer had stood around pondering how best to define the lion bearing down on him, his philosophical genes would have been unlikely to pass on to subsequent generations.

Several studies show this essentialist mindset in children, and some of the psychologist Paul Bloom’s work further vindicates the notion that we are essentialists at heart.

Existence

It’s not only in contrived thought experiments that our essentialism becomes a problem. It is liable to creep implicitly into to any thinking or discussion that deals with the existence of things. And since any conversation necessarily invokes the existence of things in order to communicate them, we can see how this would be a problem.

Here I wish to demonstrate some concrete examples of why this is a problem in philosophical and scientific thought.

One manifestation of essentialist thinking leading people astray occurred in early skepticism about evolution. Many creationists and other evolution skeptics have argued that it is logically impossible for one species or class of animals to beget another, by the following kind of argument (this particular version is used by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, in his illustration of flawed thinking on the subject of evolution):

  1. Every mammal has a mammal for a mother.
  2. If there have been any mammals at all, there have only been a finite number of mammals.
  3. But if there has been even one mammal, then by (1), there has been an infinity of mammals, which contradicts (2), so there can’t have been any mammals.

The problem with the argument, of course, lies in the implicit assumption of an absolute, essentialist definition of ‘mammal’. Refuting it involves illustrating that there can in fact be intermediate states in the evolution from synapsids (the reptiles mammals evolved from) to mammals, where a species is simultaneously mammal-ish and synapsid-ish – thereby rejecting the logic of the syllogism.

But it’s not just creationists who are falling prey to our innate essentialism. Scientists and philosophers alike are making the same mistake – but they’re doing it in reverse.

What happens is, they discover that something we thought we understood, like gravity, or ‘the self’, are completely different to what our naive, essentialist intuitions initially led us to believe they were. For example, gravity is actually a consequence of distortions in spacetime, rather than a force of attraction; ‘the self’ is an emergent property of a collection of computational modules in the brain, rather than an immutable ‘soul’.

Then, upon discovering that our traditional notions of these things are utter bunkum, they triumphantly declare: “X doesn’t exist!”


Examples:

The self doesn’t exist

Free will doesn’t exist

Gravity doesn’t exist

Jim Carrey doesn’t exist


The mistake here is this: by declaiming that “X doesn’t exist”, they have conferred upon X an absolute definition – namely, the intuitive, essentialist definition it had traditionally been given.

But, if that was the right move to make, then we would also need to discard mammals as non-existent too, since clearly the traditional notion of an ‘essential mammal’ is faulty, as we quickly realized after discovering natural selection (or at least, some of us did). By the same logic, multitudes of other concepts would be knocked out of existence, leaving us very little to talk about.

Instead, perhaps what we should do is update our definitions.

Gravity can still exist, its definition just needs to be elaborated to account for our new scientific understanding.

So I’m not necessarily discounting the validity of the core of what is being explained in some of the arguments in the links above, but I think that philosophers and physicists alike would do well to understand what ‘existence’ should actually mean, before indiscriminately expunging every single thing we hold dear from the realm of reality.

If these hard-nosed reductionists have it their way, soon nothing at all will exist, and we’ll all just be meaningless assemblages of particles (which don’t exist) blithering through (non)existence for a short and pointless period of time (which, in case you didn’t know, doesn’t exist).

So how do we save ourselves from the oblivion of non-existence? It’s simple: we need to iron out a sensible definition of ‘existence’.

Saving Existence

OK, so we’ve identified a psychological proclivity towards essentialism we all share, and we’ve shown that it wreaks havoc on our ability to make sense of the world.

The 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill summarized the problem succinctly:

“The tendency has always been strong to believe that whatever received a name must be an entity or being, having an independent existence of its own, and if no real entity answering to the name could be found, men did not for that reason suppose that none existed, but imagined that it was something particularly abstruse and mysterious.”

The only apparent difference between his time and now, is that when we find ‘no real entity answering to the name’, we do declare that it doesn’t exist (or at least, some of us do).

So it’s clear we need a somewhat rigorous, non-essentialist way of defining things. That way, we can happily speak of their existence, under no illusions about the nature of the referents of the words we use.

The first step is simply to be cognizant of the words we use; to make sure we don’t find ourselves making the essentialist error. Since this is an easy error to make, and since I find myself making it rather often, I have adopted the convention of sometimes bracketing a word with curly braces { }, to signify that it does not represent an absolute concept, but rather, that the meaning of the word is contingent on a nuanced definition.

So, rather than saying gravity doesn’t exist – it makes much more sense to recognize that the definition of {gravity} just needs updating. It still has most of the features we previously attributed to it after Newton’s discoveries, but now it requires a little more elaboration, to account for the discoveries of Einstein.

The {self} exists too – as long as we understand that what we mean by {self} is the gestalt activity of many sub-regions in the brain all acting in concert (and how they manifest in the real world) – rather than some kind of metaphysical ‘essence’.

Of course, it is impractical (and annoying) to explicitly include the brackets every time we use the words – but I find it useful to at least mentally adorn certain words with the brackets, as a reminder to resist the urge to impute an absolute definition.

With all this in mind, we can happily solve the ‘Ship of Theseus’ conundrum:

We would mentally convert:  “The Ship of Theseus”  –> “{The Ship of Theseus}”

..recognizing that until we have a concrete understanding of what {The Ship of Theseus} refers to (i.e. what its definition is), then we cannot possibly answer the question: “Is this {Theseus’ Ship}?”

It’s all very easy then, we just need to be clear on our definitions – Philosophy 101!

But not so fast.

If we want to make a definition for X, and we agree that there is no such thing as an absolute definition of X because it is not defined by some free-floating essence, then how do we proceed?

In other words, how can we define a thing that only ‘exists’ by virtue of our definition of it? Isn’t this circular?

Precisely so!

Circular, or more accurately, recursive definition is how any concept in our collective epistemology gets off the ground, though of course, this is far from obvious.

To demonstrate this idea, let’s try to define ‘paper’.

Forget for a moment everything I have thus far said about the dubiousness of essences and so forth. How would you instinctively define ‘paper’?

Think about that for a while. What makes paper paper?

Could paper exist by itself, perhaps, as the sole object in an otherwise empty universe?

You can probably imagine a piece of paper floating in space with nothing else around it – but right off the bat you’ve bought a bunch of other concepts along for the ride. The concept of ‘space’ for example, is a fundamental (if implicit) feature of any reasonable definition of paper.

Atoms too, because what else could the paper be made out of?

See if you can find the essence of the paper though. You’ll quickly find that it can’t be done – at least, in a completely non-arbitrary way.

In reality, paper is defined by its relationship to a plethora of other concepts; it is defined in terms of trees, and pulp, and pencils, and ideas, and people, and books, and language, and so forth.

And it follows that each of these other concepts is itself defined in a similar manner. To attempt to disentangle a given concept from other concepts quickly reveals that none can exist in a vacuum – their very definitions are predicated on their relationships to each other.

In other words, any given concept lying around in that noggin of yours is defined by other concepts, which are in turn defined by others, in a kind of monstrous recursive tangle. I like to call this morass an ‘epistemological web’ – because it’s literally a web of knowledge.

Obviously it would be impossible to visualize the totality of one’s epistemological web, since there would be hundreds of thousands – maybe millions of concepts, with billions of connections between them – perhaps not unlike neuronal networks in the brain.

When you think of, or talk about a particular concept, what you’re implicitly doing is invoking all of the other concepts that it is connected to (and defined by) – even if you don’t realize it.

Explicitly defining any particular concept in concrete terms is impossible – the best you could do is precisely sketch out your entire web of knowledge, and then point vaguely towards a particular part of it – the part that represents ‘goats’, for example.

Fortunately, we can get away with the inexactitude of our language, because our vague allusions to a concept’s general place within the epistemological web are sufficient for other people to understand us.

The reason it is possible to communicate your ideas to another person, is that their epistemological web is likely to be sufficiently similar to yours; your conceptual knowledge maps roughly onto theirs, and thus, when you explain something to them, you are, in effect, guiding them through the web of their own knowledge.

An analogy here would be if two people, each holding a map of the same place (each of which has been made by a different map-making company), are separated by a thin wall, and they try to indicate landmarks on their respective maps to each other verbally.

Problems arise when the maps differ significantly: perhaps one has less detail, or its roads are in slightly different orientations, and one person is unable to reconcile their own map with what the other person is describing.

In order to re-orient them to what you’re talking about, you must regroup at a landmark that both of your maps have in common, and then carefully walk them through the path to some other landmark you’re trying to describe.

 The Veracity of your Epistemological Web

 So then, we all appear to have these tangled structures of knowledge embedded in our brains – perhaps instantiated in the form of networks of neurons – but, given the recursive nature of any given concept, how can we be sure of its accuracy?

The first thing to realize is that most of what we incorporate into our web consists of things we empirically observe in the external world. After all, it make sense to suppose that evolution would equip our brains with a reasonably precise map of reality, which we could update via sensory input, so that we could navigate the real thing with some aplomb.

Empirical observation, then – a la the scientific method – is an effective means of checking the validity of one’s map.

But there is an obvious concern here, that since our epistemology is a self-supporting mass, we have nothing truly concrete to anchor it to. However, Descartes showed us that this is not necessarily true.

If we reflect on his ‘cogito ergo sum’ (I think, therefore I am), in light of all of the above, we can see that all of the appearances in one’s consciousness constitute irrefutable evidence of something – from which we can construct a rudimentary epistemological web.

Instead of accepting Descarte’s essentialist notions about the referents of ‘thinking’ and ’existing’, we can construe them instead as features of a small, self-supporting epistemological web. The state of ‘being’, then, is in some sense defined by the state of ‘thinking’ – and vice versa. So even this supposedly concrete ‘starting point’ is itself circular – but this is fine, because the web is self-evidently true.

The existential danger lies in the possibility of being deluded about the specific features that we subsequently add on to our web of knowledge. How can we know for sure that, for example, the earth is not flat, as the subversive conspiracy theory proposes?

The answer to this is in two parts.

First, the elements in one’s epistemological web should be mutually supportive – i.e. non-contradictory. If you try to add a new piece of knowledge – for example, the proposition that the earth is flat – then in order for it to fit in, it must support, and not contradict any other beliefs in your web.

It doesn’t fit into mine, since I have a rich picture of the solar system, with its (roughly) spherical planets in their elliptical orbits. I have a picture of how gravity works. I have a respect for empirical evidence, which I have personally observed enough of to refute the flat earth claim, and so on. Flat earth simply cannot be incorporated into my epistemological web, except as: ‘a delusional theory espoused by scientifically illiterate conspiracy theorists’.

And yet, as these conspiracy theorists would undoubtedly contend: perhaps all of these other beliefs I have – which contradict the flat earth theory – are wrong; how can I be sure they’re not?

The answer lies in the second point:

The richer one’s web of knowledge becomes; i.e. the more replete with mutually supportive beliefs, the less likely it is that they are all wrong, and the more likely that any given belief is right.

Here’s a particularly instructive analogy: think of it like one of these ‘code cracker puzzles’, in which you fill the rows and columns with words that mutually fit into the puzzle:

‘Reality’ is the solution to puzzle – it has clearly defined, unambiguous answers1. Your epistemological beliefs are the solutions you have scrawled onto the sheet, and they may or may not be correct.

A sparse, ‘course-grained’ set of beliefs is akin to having filled out only a small portion of the puzzle. In this case, it is much easier to add incorrect words, since there are fewer preexisting words to contradict it.

On the other hand, the more one fills in their puzzle, the more difficult it becomes to include faulty words, since they must necessarily accord with all of the words that surround it.

Thus, I suspect that flat earth theorists are in possession of some rather impoverished code-cracker puzzles. I have discussed this kind of idea in more depth in my article about rationality.

This philosophy that one’s knowledge is a self-supporting network, or web of mutually supportive beliefs, is called ‘Coherentism’ – and I hope I have convinced you that it is more-or-less the correct way to think about epistemology.

Conclusion

For those eager for more on the subject, I have made a few more points about it here (I didn’t include them in the main article since I felt they were secondary to the central thesis, and since the article was becoming somewhat protracted).

Regardless, we have learned that us fickle humans have these innate essentialist philosophies, which have led many philosophers and scientists astray in considering the existence of things, both explicitly and implicitly.

We saw that the solution to this problem is to ensure we define the concepts we use clearly, and that the way to do this is to consider their position within one’s ‘epistemological web’.

The nature of knowledge – or epistemology – appears to be a recursive, self-supporting tangle of concepts, and the degree of confidence one can have that their beliefs are correct is related to how fine-grained the whole structure is.

Check out my other articles for related stuff, particular these ones:

Understanding

Rationality

Thinking Tools

And stick around for future articles (free will is up next!).


1

Some might consider this a tendentious claim. It may not be obvious, but I am confident that its true – how else could we explain the success of science? The only difficulty is understanding reality in terms of the concepts we invent. Perhaps if we could somehow do away with our conceptual overlays altogether, such that our epistemological web was a reflection of the purely mathematical laws that underlie our universe, then we would have a one-to-one mapping between our epistemology, and ontological reality.

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