Reading Log – February 10th, 2021

Back to candidacy paper readings today. I’m working on a paper related to philosophical intuitionism and epistemic self-defeat. That is, I’m interested in arguments concerning whether arguments undermining intuition (in the technical, philosophical sense of the word) are ultimately self-defeating since they must rely on intuition. I actually began the Smithies paper a couple days ago but set it down halfway through due to its length. The Smithies piece didn’t turn out to directly relate to my project as much as I’d hoped, but was still an illuminating read in the vicinity since it discusses intuitionism. The Zouhar reading relates directly to my project, and while I disagree with most of what he has to say that’s what makes his essay interesting and valuable.

  • Smithies, Declan. “On the Global Ambitions of Phenomenal Conservatism.” Analytic Philosophy, Vol. 60, No. 3, 2019. 206-244.

This is the longest standalone article I’ve read while reading for my candidacy paper. It’s an attack on Michael Huemer’s theory of ‘Phenomenal Conservatism,” though it’s also a companion piece to Smithies’ book The Epistemic Role of Consciousness (2019), given that he’s continually referring the reader back to the book for the details on his own theory of “Accessibilism,” which features prominently in the article. It’s probably for the best since the article is long enough – though too much of its length is repetition of the same ideas. I should say something about substance instead of complaining about the style and length. Although Smithies attacks Phenomenal Conservatism his own theory still takes intuitions as evidence, so it’s not a direct challenge to my own thinking. His claim that intuitions lack presentational phenomenology, and are in that way dis-analogous to perception, does seem to raise some problems for proponents of sui generis intuitionism, however.

  • Zouhar, Marian. “On the Alleged Indispensability of Intuitions to Philosophy.” The Balkan Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2015. 37-44.

Zouhar’s target is George Bealer’s argument that modal intuitions are indispensable to philosophy. He think that Bealer is mistaken since certain philosophical arguments can be formulated without referring to intuitions. Likewise, Zouhar thinks modal intuitions can be arrived at through induction, without the need for intuition. I think Zouhar misses the point of Bealer’s arguments, but I haven’t read all of the relevant Bealer yet so I could be wrong. Regardless, certain modal intuitions (about, say, the necessity of accepting the conclusion of a sound argument) do seem indispensable to philosophy and argumentation in general. Zouhar states that we can simply “assume” these things without evidence, but that seems an abandonment of the search for answers rather than an actual one. There are real concerns that “intuition” might not be a reliable source of evidence, but I don’t think denying the need for evidence is a plausible alternative. Still, a very helpful read!

Fake Philosophers; or, the Modern Sophist

Occasionally I happen across New Age figures that style themselves as “philosophers.” As someone whose worked hard to formally study philosophy, yet would still feel reticent to call myself a “philosopher”, this angers me.

I enjoy true crime programs, and over the past few days I watched documentaries about various cults. The Family International, Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate – like many people I have a bile fascination with the psychology of people who are led to believe something ridiculous. There are broadly two types of cult leaders: those who believe what they’re saying and those who don’t. Of my example cults only the leaders of Heaven’s Gate seem to have believed their own message. I deplore the grifters more, but believers are scarier.

Today I happened across Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray.

James Arthur Ray is a New Age guru who managed to get three people killed in 2010. His typical grift appears to involve motivational speaking events where people pay to hear a secularized, New Age version of prosperity gospel. By simply thinking positive you can conquer the world! Now I’ve saved you $10,000. He combined these supposed insights with “retreats” that subjected people to grueling physical and mental exertion. In the instance where he got three people killed, the retreat involved sitting in a large tent in the desert while hot coals were placed inside to warm it further.

What has this to do with the title of this entry? Ray received his first bit of fame from some self-help, motivational program called The Secret where he appeared alongside other grifters. In The Secret, Ray is identified by a caption calling him “A Philosopher.” What credentials does Ray possess? Well, he dropped out of junior college to become a telemarketer. He might as well claim to be a neurosurgeon or an anthropologist, he’s equally qualified.

Of course, the reason Ray is given this title is because it’s mysterious and mystical. Many people who have no other point of reference for philosophy might point to someone like Deepak Chopra before any academic philosopher. The popular perception of philosophers sometimes seems to be some mystic who waxes poetic about the meaning of life instead of people interested in logic, argumentation, and truth. I think a meagre portion of the blame for this situation should be pinned on actual philosophers for letting this happen.

Since the medieval period philosophy has been abstracted from the art of living. If we look at the beginnings of most philosophical traditions there is an early interest in philosophizing about how best to live. The ancient Greek Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics certainly had much to say on this topic, as did Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and other early philosophical schools in the eastern tradition. Now, there have always been folks doing moral philosophy who offer insights into how to conduct ourselves, but even in ethics the philosophical discussions moved away from advising people on how to live.

This historical sketch is a gross over-simplification, naturally, but is only meant to be suggestive. My point is that when philosophers abdicated themselves from the task of advising people on how best to live, plenty of charlatans took up their place. Some of these charlatans even style themselves as “philosophers.” In some ways it’s unfair to compare contemporary New Age gurus to the ancient Sophists. The Sophists we meet in Plato’s dialogues have some interesting arguments, and are occasionally a match for Socrates. The New Age mystics offer nothing nearly as interesting or insightful.

However, I don’t blame those taken in by these conmen. The desire for direction and guidance in life is a real and legitimate one, which is why I think actual philosophers could stand to offer people more. That’s not to discount the importance of purely theoretical work, but I think we can strive for a better balance. The alternative is to abandon people to navigate a self-help industry of grifters and frauds, which is not ideal.