The Problems of Philosophy

Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?

This text is included in Pojman’s book; I read it (Russell’s contribution to the book that is, not the book itself – that book has a lot of stuff…) a while back, but I haven’t really talked about it here on the blog. You can read it here.

I have included a few quotes from the text below. I also added a few personal remarks at the bottom of the post as well.

“In one sense it must be admitted that we can never prove the existence of things other than ourselves and our experiences. No logical absurdities results from the hypothesis that the world consists of myself and my thoughts and feelings and sensations, and that everything else is mere fancy. […] There is no logical impossibility in the supposition that the whole of life is a dream, in which we ourselves create all the objects that come before us. But although this is not logically impossible, there is no reason whatever to assume that it is true”

“Of course it is not by argument that we originally come by our belief in an independent external world. We find this belief ready in ourselves as soon as we begin to reflect: it is what may be called an instinctive belief. […] All knowledge, we find, must be built up upon our instinctive beliefs, and if these are rejected, nothing is left. But among our instinctive beliefs some are much stronger than others, while many have, by habit and association, become entangled with other beliefs, not really instinctive, but falsely supposed to be part of what is believed instinctively.
Philosophy should show us the hierarchy of our instinctive beliefs, beginning with those we hold most strongly, and presenting each as much isolated and as free from irrelevant additions as possible. It should take care to show that, in the form in which they are finally set forth, our instinctive beliefs do not clash, but form a harmonious system. There can never be any reason for rejecting one instinctive belief except that it clashes with others; thus, if they are found to harmonize, the whole system becomes worthy of acceptance.
It is of course possible that all or any of our beliefs may be mistaken, and therefore all ought to be held with at least some slight element of doubt. But we cannot have reason to reject a belief except on the ground of some other belief. Hence, by organizing our instinctive beliefs and their consequences, by considering which among them is most possible, if necessary, to modify or abandon, we can arrive, on the basis of accepting as our sole data what we instinctively believe, at an orderly systematic organization of our knowledge, in which, though the possibility of error remains, its likelihood is diminished by the interrelation of the parts and by the critical scrutiny which has preceded acquiescence.
This function, at least, philosophy can perform. Most philosophers, rightly or wrongly, believe that philosophy can do much more than this”

“Nothing can be known to exist except by the help of experience. […] Rationalists believed that, from general consideration as to what must be, they could deduce the existence of this or that in the actual world. In this belief they seem to have been mistaken. All the knowledge that we can acquire a priori concerning existence seems to be hypothetical: it tells us that if one thing exists, another must exist, or, more generally, that if one proposition is true, another must be true. […] the scope and power of a priori principles is strictly limited. All knowledge that something exists must be in part dependent on experience. When anything is known immediately, its existence is known by experience alone; when anything is proved to exist, without being known immediately, both experience and a priori principles must be required in the proof. Knowledge is called empirical when it rests wholly or partly upon experience. Thus all knowledge which asserts existence is empirical, and the only a priori knowledge concerning existence is hypothetical, giving connexions among things that exist or may exist, but not giving actual existence.”

“We may believe what is false as well as what is true. We know that on very many subjects different people hold different and incompatible opinions: hence some beliefs must be erroneous. Since erroneous beliefs are often held just as strongly as true beliefs, it becomes a difficult question how they are to be distinguished from true beliefs. […some talk about the correspondence theory of truth] […] minds do not create truth or falsehood. They create beliefs, but when once the beliefs are created, the mind cannot make them true or false, except in the special case where they concern future things which are within the power of the person believing, such as catching trains. What makes a belief true is a fact, and this fact does not (except in exceptional cases) in any way involve the mind of the person who has the belief.”

“to a great extent, the uncertainty of philosophy is more apparent than real: those questions which are already capable of definite answers are placed in the sciences, while those only to which, at present, no definite answer can be given, remain to form the residue which is called philosophy. This is, however, only a part of the truth concerning the uncertainty of philosophy. […] The value of philosophy is […] to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find, as we saw in our opening chapters, that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect. […] Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation”

I know I’m repeating myself because I’ve said similar things in the past, but I still consider it an important point to add: Many people over time have wasted their lives pondering questions which they would not have been asking themselves if only they had known more stuff about the world. In my model of the world, people need to rely on knowledge to ask good questions, and the more one knows about the world, the better one gets at asking the right questions about it. Thinking about stuff is different from knowing stuff, and the payoff schedule related to ‘knowing more stuff’ for most people will look very different from the payoff schedule related to ‘thinking more about stuff’. People in general have much less knowledge than they ought to have in order to support the opinions they already hold.

On a related matter, if you’re repeatedly engaging yourself in the activity of asking questions to which no answers exist, you’re in my mind – I know some philosophers will disagree – quite likely to be asking the wrong questions and to be wasting your time.

August 12, 2014 - Posted by | Books, Philosophy


  1. “if you’re repeatedly engaging yourself in the activity of asking questions to which no answers exist, you’re in my mind – I know some philosophers will disagree – quite likely to be asking the wrong questions and to be wasting your time.” Hm… You should be more specific. It is not just philosophers who have a tendency to ask questions to which no answer exists. There are many scientists who are also asking questions to which no answers exist (both currently and also possibly for a very long time in the future), and yet these questions are nevertheless very important in determining future research directions. E.g., the interpretation of quantum mechanics you subscribe to would have implications on your views on how research in sub-areas like quantum gravity and quantum field theory should be carried out. And yet it remains the truth that right now we simply do not know for sure which interpretation is correct, and it is most likely that we will never find out for a very, very long time, due to limitations in our experimentation capabilities. Would you also consider these scientists to be wasting their time?

    The questions they ask might turn out to yield fruitful answers, or they might turn out to be completely wrong-headed. The problem is that currently in very advanced theoretical physics we simply do not have very strong evidence in any direction to tell us which ones are fruitful and which ones are misguided. (I am not sure you’d go so far as to suggest that we should therefore severely cut funding to theoretical physics departments…) Knowledge progresses when we encourage lots of people to ask very different questions and pursue very different research paths — and yes, most of the time they will arrive at dead ends, but along the way they might still have generated some useful results. There will only be a small handful who end up making breakthroughs, and this small handful would also be well-served by observing and understanding why so many others have arrived at dead ends. Anyway, it is not clear to me that asking the wrong questions necessarily means time has been completely wasted.

    Or perhaps I am misunderstanding you, and your statement only applies to questions to which no answer exists and will ever exist. Those questions might employ logical impossibilities or terminology so confused that no amount of thinking will yield any helpful insights. If this is what you mean, then naturally I agree with you.

    Comment by Maxwell B. | August 12, 2014 | Reply

    • I think it certainly does apply to questions to which no answers exist and never will exist, and it was mostly those questions I had in mind.

      That said, I’m not sure the problem is really limited to those contexts.

      “we simply do not know for sure which interpretation is correct, and it is most likely that we will never find out for a very, very long time, due to limitations in our experimentation capabilities.”

      It seems to me that in such contexts it would be much more sensible to ask questions about how to improve experimentation capabilities than it would be to ask further questions which are contingent upon the answers to those questions. Asking questions which can be answered facilitates the ability to move on to other (deeper?) questions and ‘make progress’ in a field. I’m sure any semi-rational approach to how to maximize progress/impact etc. as a function of the attention devoted to various types of questions and given a budget constraint (and/or a constraint on how much time can be spent thinking about a given topic), one of the variables you would need to focus on would be the probability that an answer can be found, because resource allocation should probably depend upon this variable. I’d prefer allocating the marginal research dollar to the materials scientists over allocating it to string theorists.

      “it is not clear to me that asking the wrong questions necessarily means time has been completely wasted.” I think you’re assuming here that I made a statement I didn’t. Here’s what I wrote: “if you’re repeatedly engaging yourself in the activity of asking questions to which no answers exist, you’re […] quite likely to be asking the wrong questions and to be wasting your time.” The point is not that the time is always completely wasted, it’s that it’s more likely to be wasted than if you’d answered better questions which had a higher probability of finding an answer. Do note that this should in this context be considered a statement mainly about probabilities, not justification, though of course the two are related (see also below) – the use of the words ‘waste of time’ was probably unfortunately chosen, because these words might have indicated to you that a justification judgment was being made as well (this relates to the fact that I was mostly thinking about theorizing about questions to which no sensible answers exist and never can exist, and in that context I don’t find it too difficult to make a judgment about justification).

      One problem I did not touch upon above is what we even mean by saying that a question is ‘answerable’; however I think our notions of this concept are similar enough as to not cause too much trouble. But the problem is worth keeping in mind; humans are really good at finding answers to the questions they ask, so we may often not be aware that we’re asking questions to which answers do not exist. We almost always come up with answers, even to questions which are completely meaningless – philosophical and religious texts illustrate this principle very well. The types of answers provided is very important.

      Another problem which you also touch upon is that it’s often difficult to know which questions will be answerable; I think if I had to make a general point in that context, that point would not be that ‘one should always avoid asking questions to which one is not certain to be able to find an answer’, as much as it would be that ‘to the extent that you do have estimates of the probabilities of various questions being answerable, you would do well to focus on the questions which are more likely to be answerable’. The impact of answering the question of course also enters the picture, but the answerability component should be considered as well because it relates to the ‘probability of success’.

      In general if people are engaged in thinking about stuff where “we simply do not have very strong evidence”, they to me seem quite likely to be wasting their time. This is only a statement about the probabilities involved, not a statement about justification – justification is a different question, and you need to include the impact variable as well in the analysis to answer that one.

      Comment by US | August 12, 2014 | Reply

      • Maybe it should be added however that I do think one should in general be very careful about justifying spending time on questions with low answerability estimates on account of their potential high impacts. One can always justify spending time on a given question by adding to the impact, almost regardless of the probability; this is for example how religion works.

        Comment by US | August 12, 2014

      • Thank you for taking the time write such a thoughtful comment. I have read it, but unfortunately I do not yet have time to reply to it. But I will just write a quick note now to say that I agree with your thoughts on the issue in spirit, though I have some caveats. (However, I am confident that you wouldn’t find those caveats problematic; in fact, I would be so presumptuous as to say that our thoughts are actually aligned.) I might just turn it into a blog post when I have the time, and then cross-post parts of it as a reply on your blog 🙂

        Comment by Maxwell B. | August 12, 2014

  2. […] – Ung Studerende, ‘The Problems of Philosophy‘ […]

    Pingback by On asking questions | Non Compos Sui | August 14, 2014 | Reply

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