Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Keeping an open mind on the mind-body problem, part 2

As I discussed in yesterday's post, most philosophers reject dualistic theories of the mind. If you're a professional philosopher, you're supposed to scoff at the word "dualism," point out that Descartes naively believed in dualism, and explain that we now understand how foolish he was. So foolish it's not even worth arguing about.

This is one of the many biases of philosophy that makes it an unreliable source of truth. Being a dualist philosopher in this day and age is like being a politician who's a pro-choice Republican or a pro-life Democrat: you might have smart things to say that would enrich the debate, but you're going to be inhibited from saying them because that's just not what people in your position are supposed to do.

Another bias of academic philosophy is that if you can describe someone else's view as "mysterious" (or even "spooky"), that's considered a devastating critique. In contrast, you support your own theory by saying that if it's true, it explains a lot about the world. But the problem is that there's a lot about the world that is mysterious. And some theories that seem to "explain" a lot are actually just sweeping a bunch of complexity and mystery under the rug.

I wish instead of using "mysterious" as an insult, professional philosophers would see it as a potentially positive quality: "Hey, your theory accurately recognizes how mysterious and unsolved this phenomenon is." Of course, this would shed light on how limited philosophy's accomplishments are, so it's unsurprising that people who depend on philosophy to make a living avoid talking this way.

IN THE COMMENTS: A possible solution to the mystery of why philosophers use "mysterious" as an insult:
Isn't "mysterious" a code word for religion?
Philosophers will also use "mystical" with the same meaning, which makes the connection blatant.
UPDATE: Continued here.


Ann Althouse said...

Isn't "mysterious" a code word for religion?

Etymology for "mystery":

"mystery (1)
c.1315, in a theological sense, "religious truth via divine revelation, mystical presence of God," from Anglo-Fr. *misterie (O.Fr. mistere), from L. mysterium, from Gk. mysterion (usually in pl. mysteria) "secret rite or doctrine," from mystes "one who has been initiated," from myein "to close, shut," perhaps referring to the lips (in secrecy) or to the eyes (only initiates were allowed to see the sacred rites). The Gk. word was used in Septuagint for "secret counsel of God," translated in Vulgate as sacramentum. Non-theological use in English, "a hidden or secret thing," is from c.1300. In ref. to the ancient rites of Greece, Egypt, etc. it is attested from 1643. Meaning "detective story" first recorded in Eng. 1908."