Common Sense, Science Fiction, and Weird, Uncharitable History of Philosophy

Philosophers have three broad methods for settling disputes: appeal to "common sense" or culturally common presuppositions, appeal to scientific evidence, and appeal to theoretical virtues like simplicity, coherence, fruitfulness, and pragmatic value. Some of the most interesting disputes are disputes in which all three of these broad methods are problematic and seemingly indecisive.

One of my aims as a philosopher is to intervene on common sense. "Common sense" is inherently conservative. Common sense used to tell us that the Earth didn't move, that humans didn't descend from ape-like ancestors, that certain races were superior to others, that the world was created by a god or gods of one sort or another. Common sense is a product of biological and cultural evolution, plus the cognitive and social development of people in a limited range of environments. Common sense only has to get things right enough, for practical purposes, to help us manage the range of environments to which we are accustomed. Common sense is under no obligation to get it right about the early universe, the microstructure of matter, the history of the species, future technologies, or the consciousness of weird hypothetical systems we have never encountered.

The conservativism and limited vision of common sense leads us to dismiss as "crazy" some philosophical and scientific views that might in fact be true. I've argued that this is especially so regarding theories of consciousness, about which something crazy must be true. For example: literal group consciousness, panpsychism, and/or the failure of pain to supervene locally. Although I don't believe that existing arguments decisively favor any of those possibilities, I do think that we ought to restrain our impulse to dismiss such views out of hand. Fit with common sense is one important factor in evaluating philosophical claims, especially when direct scientific evidence and considerations of general theoretical virtue are indecisive, but it is only one factor. We ought to be ready to accept that in some philosophical domains, our commonsense intuitions cannot be entirely preserved.

Toward this end, I want to broaden our intuitive sense of the possible. The two best techniques I know are science fiction and cross-cultural philosophy.

The philosophical value of science fiction consists not only in the potential of science fictional speculations to describe possible futures that we might actually encounter. Historically, science fiction has not been a great predictor of the future. The primary philosophical value of science fiction might rather consist in its ability to flex our minds and disrupt commonsense conservatism. After reading far-out stories about weird utopias, uploading into simulated realities, bizarrely constructed intelligent aliens, body switching, Matrioshka Brains, and alternative universes, philosophical speculations about panpsychism and group consciousness no longer seem quite so intolerably weird. At least that's my (empirically falsifiable) conjecture.

Similarly, brain-flexing is an important part of the value of reading the history of philosophy -- especially work from traditions other than those with which you are already familiar. Here it's especially important not to be too "charitable" (i.e. assimilative). Relish the weirdness -- "weird" from your perspective! -- of radical Buddhist metaphysics, of medieval Chinese neo-Confucianism, of neo-Platonism in late antiquity, of 19th century Hegelianism and neo-Hegelianism.

If something that seems crazy must be true about the metaphysics of consciousness, or about the nature of objects and causes, or about the nature of moral value -- as extended philosophical discussions of these topics suggest probably is the case -- then to evaluate the possibilities without excess conservatism, we need to get used to bending our minds out of their usual ruts.

This is my new favorite excuse for reading Ted Chiang, cyberpunk, and Zhuangzi.

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