As I revive my WordPress presence and also review the past year, I’ll be posting a bit more. I’ll schedule them so they don’t come in bursts, but expect much more frequent posting for a few days as I move the bar for what goes on this blog. (In the past it’s been mostly low-effort quotes and somewhat higher-effort pieces. I’ll now be posting things more in the middle. I.e., with some thought behind them, but not necessarily as much as those in my Writing Prompts or Philosophical Sketches.)
There’s two parts to looking at the world. The looking and the world. Most fields of inquiry fix their way of looking and go out in search of the world. Philosophy (at least some of it) instead turns to the way we’re looking at it.
Take for example the role of acetylcholine in the brain. If you ask “Why is that ACh there?” the organic chemist will answer with some sort of mechanical explanation. There’s some mechanism that created an ACh molecule and put it where it is. On the other hand, if you asked a molecular biologist, she would give some sort of purposive explanation. There’s ACh doing the stuff it does being the beings with the ACh doing what it does were able to reproduce. Here we see two scientists answering the same question with two different but compatible answers. Both look to the world, gather their evidence, and draw conclusions about the world. And both keep their ways of looking at the world more or less fixed throughout.
This isn’t meant as an insult to the scientists! Fixing a method of investigation is just how we get a science going. Until we have a concrete system of generating questions (or problems) and an established method of answering (or solving) them, we just don’t have a science. Once we do, though, we apparently get quite a bit of use out of it. The tricky part is figuring out which systems of generating questions and which methods of answering them are the good ones. This is where I see philosophy fitting in.
I take my work on consciousness in particular to be serving this role to neuroscience and psychology, for example. The two fields have very effective ways of investigating nervous systems and mental/behavioral structures. I think that they don’t yet have a great way of investigating subjective conscious experience itself yet (which isn’t a super unpopular view). Don’t get me wrong: I don’t deny the current best empirical data people have collected. My point is not that we have no information from our current perspective, but rather that with a fundamental reconfiguration of our understanding of what consciousness is, and with this reconfiguration a new vocabulary, calculus, etc., we can see it much more clearly.
It takes all kinds. Some people are excellent at taking the blueprints and paving the roads. Some people are great at taking the beaten paths and continuing to build. And some of us see some value in taking yet-undiscovered approaches to the same material. Thus there is in fact not a conflict here but rather two parts of the same larger enterprise.