Truth, Dare, and Wonder

According to Nomy Arpaly and Zach Barnett, some philosophers prefer Truth and others prefer Dare. I love the distinction. It helps us see an important dynamic in the field. But it's not exhaustive. I think there are also Wonder philosophers.

As I see the distinction, Truth philosophers sincerely aim to present the philosophical truth as they see it. They tend to prefer modest, moderate, and commonsensical positions. They tend to recognize the substantial truth in multiple different perspectives (at least once they've been around long enough to see the flaws in their youthful enthusiasms), and thus tend to prefer multidimensionality and nuance. Truth philosophers would rather be boring and right than interesting and wrong.

Dare philosophers reach instead for the bold and unusual. They want to explore the boundaries of what can be defended. They're happy for the sake of argument to champion unusual positions that they might not fully believe, if those positions are elegant, novel, fun, contrarian, or if they think the positions have more going for them than is generally recognized. Dare philosophers sometimes treat philosophy like a game in which the ideal achievement is the breathtakingly clever defense of a position that others would have thought to be patently absurd.

There's a familiar dynamic that arises from their interaction. The Dare philosopher ventures a bold thesis, cleverly defended. ("Possible worlds really exist!", "All matter is conscious!", "We're morally obliged to let humanity go extinct!") If the defense is clever enough, so that a substantial number of readers are tempted to think "Wait, could that really be true? What exactly is wrong with the argument?" then the Truth philosopher steps in. The Truth philosopher finds the holes and presuppositions in the argument, or at least tries to, and defends a more seemingly sensible view.

This Dare-and-Truth dynamic is central to the field and good for its development. Sometimes there's more truth in the Dare positions than one would have thought, and without the Dare philosophers out there pushing the limits, seeing what can be said in defense of the seemingly absurd, then as a field we wouldn't appreciate those positions as vividly as we might. Also, I think, there's something intrinsically valuable about exploring the boundaries of philosophical defensibility, even if the positions explored turn out to be flatly false. It's part of the magnificent glory of life on Earth that we have fiendishly clever panpsychists and modal realists in our midst.

Now consider Wonder.

Why study philosophy? I mean at a personal level. Personally, what do you find cool, interesting, or rewarding about philosophy? One answer is Truth: Through philosophy, you discover answers to some of the profoundest and most difficult questions that people can pose. Another answer is Dare: It's fun to match wits, push arguments, defend surprising theses, win the argumentative game (or at least play to a draw) despite starting from a seemingly indefensible position. Both of those motivations speak to me somewhat. But I think what really delights me more than anything else in philosophy is its capacity to upend what I think I know, its capacity to call into question what I previously took for granted, its capacity to cast me into doubt, confusion, and wonder.

Unlike the Dare philosopher, the Wonder philosopher is guided by a norm of sincerity and truth. It's not primarily about matching wits and finding clever arguments. Unlike the Truth philosopher, the Wonder philosopher has an affection for the strange and seemingly wrong -- and is willing to push wild theses to the extent they suspect that those theses, wonderfully, surprisingly, might be true.

But in the Dare-and-Truth dynamic of the field, the Wonder philosopher can struggle to find a place. Bold Dare articles and sensible Truth articles both have a natural home in the journals. But "whoa, I wonder if this weird thing might be true?" is a little harder to publish.

Probably no one is pure Truth, pure Dare, or pure Wonder. We're all a mix of the three, I suspect. Thus, one approach is to leave Wonder out of your research profile: Find the Truth, where you can, publish that, and leave Wonder for your classroom teaching and private reading. Defend the existence of moderate naturalistically-grounded moral truths in your published papers; read Zhuangzi on the side.

Still, there are a few publishing strategies for Wonder philosophers. Here are four:

(1.) Find a Dare-like position that you really do sincerely endorse on reflection, and defend that -- optionally with some explicit qualifications indicating that you are exploring it only as a possibility.

(2.) Explicitly argue that we should invest a small but non-trivial credence in some Dare-like position -- for example, because the Truth-type arguments against it aren't fully compelling.

(3.) Find a Truth-like view that generates Wonder if it's true. For example, defend some form of doubt about philosophical method or about the extent of our self-knowledge. Defend the position on sensible, widely acceptable grounds; and then sensibly argue that one possible consequence is that we don't know some of the things that we normally take for granted that we do know.

(4.) Write about historical philosophers with weird and wonderful views. This gives you a chance to explore the Wonderful without committing to it.

In retrospect, I think one unifying theme in my disparate work is that it fits under one of these four heads. Much of my recent metaphysics fits under (1) or (2) (e.g., here, here, here). My work on belief and introspection mostly fits under (3) (with some (1) in my bolder moments): We can't take for granted that we have the handsome beliefs (e.g., "the sexes are intellectually equal") that we think we do, or that we have the moral character or types of experience that we think we do. And my interest in Zhuangzi and some of the stranger corners of early introspective psychology fits under (4).

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