On The Mistakes of Philosophers 1

Philosophy is a huge mistake. Or, more accurately, philosophy is a huge community of mistake-prone activists proliferating mistakes because of their reliance on previous mistakes. To lay the groundwork somewhat it may be useful to outline one basic mistake everyone makes, philosophers and non-philosophers. That mistake is reification. ‘Reification’ is a necessary piece of terminology because the crude English alternative, ‘thingification’, while amusing, is not a welcome addition.

Reification can cover a number of processes, but it turns up most often in the assumption that because one can conceive, formulate or speak of a thing, that thing exists, and often that is exists in some form more substantive than a mere concept. Now, of course, there must be some sense in which something conceived or spoken of exists, but most people find a useful distinction between the nature of a horse and that of a unicorn.

One specific such mistake relates to dualism, as touched upon in my last post. And it is very famous, so famous that someone has no doubt been dining out on its proceeds for decades now. The relevant question is ‘what is it like to be a bat?’. It is presented this way so that the well known creature, using sound rather than vision as a primary sense, gives the impression of a phenomenology different in type from our own.

Is this an interesting point? Well no. To begin with, it should be the neuroscientists telling us whether this makes a difference, and there is little reason to believe any primary sense used to represent the world in spatial fashion wouldn’t be experienced how we happen to do so visually. But it is even less interesting than a philosopher speaking outside of the discipline. It has this dualistic motive.

All we invited to do is admit the world represented to the bat is different from ours. From there we are invited to admit we therefore do not, and cannot, know the point of view of the bat. Cue the non-sequitur: this thing which it apparently is, the thing we cannot share or experience ourselves, is indeed to be considered a thing. And since it is in principle not open to shared experience it isn’t physical. And if it is not physical, and since it relates to experience of the mind, it is of the different type of substance philosophers love to ascribe to mental states.

A typical philosopher move, and no wonder it is so loved and long-lived. I would note, simply, how poor the notion of any thing it is to be like anything actually is. There is nothing it is like to be a stone, or an atom, but no such other-substance postulate is raised. Nor does the inclusion of a mental component save this. What is it like to be you? Is there one thing, moment to moment, let alone throughout the entire period there may usefully be described as a ‘you’? Is there what it is like to be a human, not just one particular human?

Open questions such as that are not arguments or evidence against, of course. They are simply a procedure. An inoculation, if you like, against lazily accepting something because you have a desire, or vested interest.

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