Christopher asked:

This is in response to a question of mine that was answered by Shaun Williamson titled How does philosophy progress?.

I feel like you only halfway answered my question, so I’m going to rephrase it so that it is more direct. In philosophy, there are times when two ideas/ theories/ ‘isms’ conflict with one another and are not compatible. It also seems to be the case that in some of these instances logic and reason alone are not enough to resolve this conflict. What I mean by this is that one idea is just as logical/ reasonable as the other one. My question is in these cases, how can one determine which one to agree with, provided that suspending belief is not an option? In your first response, you brought up truth as being the deciding factor, and I would agree with you, but so often in philosophy the truth is unknown. Consider, for example, the problem of consciousness as it relates to dualism and monism/ materialism. We don’t know how consciousness exists/ arises. Therefore, it could be that it arises purely from physical causes, which would lend evidence to materialism.

However, it also could be that consciousness is a product or somehow related to the immaterial mind, which would lend evidence to dualism. I understand that there is much more to the arguments for both of these ideas, but for the sake of argument let’s assume this is all we have to go on. How exactly is it that one would decide? My belief is that we would believe whichever idea appeals to us most, for whatever reason; popularity, an intuitive feeling, how well holding that belief fits in with our other maintained beliefs, etc.

I’m not claiming that this is the right way to decide what you believe, I’m simply saying that this is the only option left. I’m asking whether or not there is another way of deciding what to belief in these instances that avoids all this subjectivity.

Answer by Peter Jones

You ask a very good question, one that I feel is not asked often enough. I hope Shaun won’t mind me cutting in.

The way we make decisions in analytical philosophy is by the use of dialectic logic. Commonly, as you say, we see that philosophers believe whichever idea appeals to them most for whatever reason, following an intuitive feeling, or adopting beliefs that fit in with their other maintained beliefs, etc. But the ideal method is to use logic to reveal absurd theories and thus weed them out of our thinking.

Often we meet contradictions and antinomies. As you say, there are times where two opposite views/ ideas/ theories/ ‘isms’ conflict with one another and are not compatible. This is a problem where these two opposite views seem to exhaust the possibilities and we feel forced to adopt one of them. In Western philosophy this is a common practice. Here most philosophers hold views that do not stand up to logical analysis on the grounds that no view stands up to it so we might as well pick one we like. For instance, some physicists argue for ex nihilo creation even though the idea is plainly daft.

The proper method would be to reject all views that give rise to contradictions. This is how the dialectic is supposed to work. To some students this approach seems impossible in our traditional philosophy, since it seems that all metaphysical questions lead to antinomies. But this would be an interpretation. The reason some people feel obliged to endorse creation from nothing is that the opposite idea (an eternal ‘something’) is absurd. But the fact is that they are both absurd and should both be rejected. When we reject them both we arrive at a view called ‘nondualism’, which is the philosophical view that underlies mysticism. We arrive at this view by the simple process of trusting our logic and abandoning all views that give rise to contradictions.

So, in the West the question you are asking is important but has no answer. This would by people like Tyson and Dawkins have such a low opinion of philosophy and do not bother with it. They believe it cannot make decisions and is terminally inconclusive. If we do allow it to make decisions, assuming that all logically absurd theories are false, then we end up having to abandon both dualism and monism and endorse the nondual view of the Upanishads and the Tao Teh Ching. The only alternative is to ignore logic and claim that philosophy is unable to make decisions or make progress, as is the usual practice in our universities.

This is a quick response and really it needs a lot more words. I suggest reading Bradley, Nagarjuna, Spencer Brown and other logicians who discuss this issue, and perhaps (ahem) my blog. The issues can become complex, since for the recommended approach to philosophical decision-making to work the laws of dialectical logic have to be closely examined, and there are some subtleties that cause disputes.

I would say that if you can reach a satisfactory answer to your question then you will have solved metaphysics, (since you will know how to decide between theories), and that it is possible to reach a satisfactory answer. But it would require a lot of thinking outside of the box in which academic philosophy seems happy to confine itself at present.