Is there progress in philosophy?

I read an interesting philosophy paper recently, here.  Here’s my paraphrase of one of the things it said:

Philosophy is odd because it doesn’t seem to make any progress. We keep working out very precise arguments for things, but in the long run nothing ever gets settled. Why is that?

The reason is because philosophy doesn’t prove anything out of thin air; rather, it simply connects premises to conclusions. It says, if you believe A and B then you should also believe C. If I don’t want to believe in C, I can just say, “Well, then I guess either A or B must be false.” So you say, “But you have to believe in A and B. D and E are true, and if D and E are true, then A and B must be.” And I say, “Oh – well I guess either D or E must be false.”

Now sometimes this leads to progress. Sometimes, I’ll say, “Hey – I didn’t notice that D and E contradict my idea about C. I really believe D and E. I guess I must have been wrong about C.” Even if not, even if I stick to my guns about C, I may end up saying, “Well, I will admit that in order to believe C I have to reject either D or E, and I can see that’s a bit odd.” As van Inwagen says, philosophy shows us the cost of our beliefs. If I’m going to believe C, I have to let go of either D or E. If you’re going to believe D and E, you’ll have to let go of C.

Often, though, even when all the costs have been assessed, it comes down to your saying “D and E are clearly true, and C is less clear, so I believe C is false”, while I say, “C is clearly true, while D and E are less clear, so I will consider it to be proven that one of D or E is false.”

Problems arise when philosophy students are not taught that arguments show the cost of holding to a conclusion, but they are taught that arguments are absolutely certain proofs of something. Some philosophers present arguments by writing as though they are settling the issue for all time.

Personally, I hope the field of philosophy moves towards a humbler style in the future. I think it would be healthy for us.

(See my personal blog for a Christian perspective on this.)

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