Train Philosophers with Pearl and Kahneman, not Plato and Kant

Part of the se­quence: Ra­tion­al­ity and Philosophy

Hitherto the peo­ple at­tracted to philos­o­phy have been mostly those who loved the big gen­er­al­iza­tions, which were all wrong, so that few peo­ple with ex­act minds have taken up the sub­ject.

Ber­trand Russell

I’ve com­plained be­fore that philos­o­phy is a dis­eased dis­ci­pline which spends far too much of its time de­bat­ing defi­ni­tions, ig­nor­ing rele­vant sci­en­tific re­sults, and end­lessly re-in­ter­pret­ing old dead guys who didn’t know the slight­est bit of 20th cen­tury sci­ence. Is that still the case?

You bet. There’s some good philos­o­phy out there, but much of it is bad enough to make CMU philoso­pher Clark Gly­mour sug­gest that on tight uni­ver­sity bud­gets, philos­o­phy de­part­ments could be de­funded un­less their work is use­ful to (cited by) sci­en­tists and en­g­ineers — just as his own work on causal Bayes nets is now widely used in ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence and other fields.

How did philos­o­phy get this way? Rus­sell’s hy­poth­e­sis is not too shabby. Check the syl­labi of the un­der­grad­u­ate “in­tro to philos­o­phy” classes at the world’s top 5 U.S. philos­o­phy de­part­mentsNYU, Rut­gers, Prince­ton, Michi­gan Ann Ar­bor, and Har­vard — and you’ll find that they spend a lot of time with (1) old dead guys who were wrong about al­most ev­ery­thing be­cause they knew noth­ing of mod­ern logic, prob­a­bil­ity the­ory, or sci­ence, and with (2) 20th cen­tury philoso­phers who were way too en­am­ored with cogsci-ig­no­rant arm­chair philos­o­phy. (I say more about the rea­sons for philos­o­phy’s de­gen­er­ate state here.)

As the CEO of a philos­o­phy/​math/​comp­sci re­search in­sti­tute, I think many philo­soph­i­cal prob­lems are im­por­tant. But the field of philos­o­phy doesn’t seem to be very good at an­swer­ing them. What can we do?

Why, come up with bet­ter philo­soph­i­cal meth­ods, of course!

Scien­tific meth­ods have im­proved over time, and so can philo­soph­i­cal meth­ods. Here is the first of my recom­men­da­tions...

More Pearl and Kah­ne­man, less Plato and Kant

Philo­soph­i­cal train­ing should be­gin with the lat­est and great­est for­mal meth­ods (“Pearl” for the prob­a­bil­is­tic graph­i­cal mod­els made fa­mous in Pearl 1988), and the lat­est and great­est sci­ence (“Kah­ne­man” for the sci­ence of hu­man rea­son­ing re­viewed in Kah­ne­man 2011). Begin­ning with Plato and Kant (and com­pany), as most uni­ver­si­ties do to­day, both (1) filters for in­ex­act thinkers, as Rus­sell sug­gested, and (2) teaches peo­ple to have too much re­spect for failed philo­soph­i­cal meth­ods that are out of touch with 20th cen­tury break­throughs in math and sci­ence.

So, I recom­mend we teach young philos­o­phy stu­dents:

more Bayesian ra­tio­nal­ity, heuris­tics and bi­ases, & de­bi­as­ing, less in­for­mal “crit­i­cal think­ing skills”;
more math­e­mat­i­cal logic & the­ory of com­pu­ta­tion, less term logic;
more prob­a­bil­ity the­ory & Bayesian sci­en­tific method, less pre-1980 philos­o­phy of sci­ence;
more psy­chol­ogy of con­cepts & ma­chine learn­ing, less con­cep­tual anal­y­sis;
more for­mal episte­mol­ogy & com­pu­ta­tional episte­mol­ogy, less pre-1980 episte­mol­ogy;
more physics & cos­mol­ogy, less pre-1980 meta­physics;
more psy­chol­ogy of choice, less philos­o­phy of free will;
more moral psy­chol­ogy, de­ci­sion the­ory, and game the­ory, less in­tu­ition­ist moral philos­o­phy;
more cog­ni­tive psy­chol­ogy & cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science, less pre-1980 philos­o­phy of mind;
more lin­guis­tics & psy­chol­in­guis­tics, less pre-1980 philos­o­phy of lan­guage;
more neu­roaes­thet­ics, less aes­thet­ics;
more causal mod­els & psy­chol­ogy of causal per­cep­tion, less pre-1980 the­o­ries of cau­sa­tion.

(In other words: train philos­o­phy stu­dents like they do at CMU, but even “more so.”)

So, my own “in­tro to philos­o­phy” mega-course might be guided by the fol­low­ing core read­ings:

  1. Stanovich, Ra­tion­al­ity and the Reflec­tive Mind (2010)

  2. Hin­man, Fun­da­men­tals of Math­e­mat­i­cal Logic (2005)

  3. Rus­sell & Norvig, Ar­tifi­cial In­tel­li­gence: A Modern Ap­proach (3rd edi­tion, 2009) — con­tains chap­ters which briefly in­tro­duce prob­a­bil­ity the­ory, prob­a­bil­is­tic graph­i­cal mod­els, com­pu­ta­tional de­ci­sion the­ory and game the­ory, knowl­edge rep­re­sen­ta­tion, ma­chine learn­ing, com­pu­ta­tional episte­mol­ogy, and other use­ful sub­jects

  4. Sipser, In­tro­duc­tion to the The­ory of Com­pu­ta­tion (3rd edi­tion, 2012) — rele­vant to lots of philo­soph­i­cal prob­lems, as dis­cussed in Aaron­son (2011)

  5. How­son & Ur­bach, Scien­tific Rea­son­ing: The Bayesian Ap­proach (3rd edi­tion, 2005)

  6. Holyoak & Mor­ri­son (eds.), The Oxford Hand­book of Think­ing and Rea­son­ing (2012) — con­tains chap­ters which briefly in­tro­duce the psy­chol­ogy of knowl­edge rep­re­sen­ta­tion, con­cepts, cat­e­gories, causal learn­ing, ex­pla­na­tion, ar­gu­ment, de­ci­sion mak­ing, judg­ment heuris­tics, moral judg­ment, be­hav­ioral game the­ory, prob­lem solv­ing, cre­ativity, and other use­ful sub­jects

  7. Dolan & Sharot (eds.), Neu­ro­science of Prefer­ence and Choice (2011)

  8. Krane, Modern Physics (3rd edi­tion, 2012) — in­cludes a brief in­tro­duc­tion to cos­mol­ogy

(There are many pre­req­ui­sites to these, of course. I think philos­o­phy should be a Highly Ad­vanced sub­ject of study that re­quires lots of prior train­ing in maths and the sci­ences, like string the­ory but hope­fully more pro­duc­tive.)

Once stu­dents are equipped with some of the lat­est math and sci­ence, then let them tackle The Big Ques­tions. I bet they’d get farther than those raised on Plato and Kant in­stead.

You might also let them read 20th cen­tury an­a­lytic philos­o­phy at that point — hope­fully their train­ing will have in­oc­u­lated them from pick­ing up bad think­ing habits.

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