A Standard Method of Philosophical Inquiry

The invention of the idea of a theory—a systematic set of logically related propositions that attempt to explain the phenomena of some domain—was perhaps the greatest single achievement of Greek civilization.

– John Searle

Ryan Holiday recently published a piece about Why You Should Study Philosophy. It’s a good read, and Holiday makes a number of insightful points about the value of inviting big ideas into one’s life. Philosophers through the ages have had a lot to say about the widest possible range of topics, spanning from the broadest generalities to the oddest particularities. They’ve mused on how to live a good life and the sorts of endeavors that are worth pursuing; they’ve argued about how to discern right from wrong and what it means to be a moral person; and they’ve postulated innumerable theories about the nature of reality and the origins of human consciousness. And these don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the painstakingly researched esoteric minutia the philosophers of today dedicate their lives to litigating, one peer-reviewed journal submission at a time. Truly, there exists no lack of rigorously interrogated philosophical scholarship regarding just about any specific domain of inquiry today.

Studying philosophy has long been more than a pastime of mine, to the extent that I’ve devoted years of my life and tens of thousands of dollars to doing so in the form of pursuing a Philosophy degree. And one realization I’ve come to as a student of the discipline is that studying philosophy is quite different from doing philosophy. Just as reading a chemistry textbook is quite different from spending time in a laboratory, studying the latest anthology of contemporary problems in philosophy of mind is quite different from spending time methodically formulating one’s own beliefs into a rational and coherent framework by following a predetermined recipe for rational thinking.

But in spite of the preponderance of philosophical literature available today, these are troubling times for knowledge creation and the recognition of true facts, with practices of thoughtless information consumption and pseudointellectualism running wild. Even trusted news sources walk the line on a regular basis between sensationalism and blatant disinformation. The Washington Post, for instance, recently ran the following headline: ‘Horns’ are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests. Despite the Lovecraftian mental images this headline may invoke, the “horns” referenced in the article turn out to be what are more accurately (but less sensationally) known as bone spurs: a phenomenon commonly linked to poor posture. Further, a day after its publication, WaPo prepended the following update to the article:

Update 6/25: After publication of this story, concerns were raised about an undisclosed business venture of one of the researchers, who works as a chiropractor. This story has been updated to reflect questions about a possible conflict of interest involving his business. The journal that published the main study in question said it was investigating the concerns. The researchers say they are making minor changes to their paper, but stand by their work.

This is only the most recent case of flagrant sensationalism and click-bait reporting to come across my newsfeed, but more extreme and potentially harmful stories have abounded for years. During the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election in the US, we saw false reports of the Pope endorsing Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton spread like wildfire across social media. We also saw verified reports of Macedonian troll farms employing disinformation artists working full time to corrupt the flow of factual information from reputable sources to the screens and eyeballs of would-be voters.

I posted last year about the telos of fake news, and danah boyd, Founder and President of Data & Society has taken note as well. According to DataSociety.net, the organization is a nonprofit “research institute that advances public understanding of the social implications of data-centric technologies and automation.” In April 2019, boyd gave a talk at the Digital Public Library of America conference in which she enumerated the vulnerabilities of social media and the news media. She discussed concerns over “data voids” and both sides-ism, and she presented a clear case regarding the dangers of epistemological fragmentation that emerge when knowledge (or its absence) is weaponized. All this is to say that the trouble is twofold: while trust in the information economy has gradually eroded on the one hand, our ability as individuals to sift through and make sense of the onslaught of dis/information has simultaneously become an increasingly difficult and rarely-exercised skill.

In light of this rather bleak state of affairs, I propose the adoption of the following model: a Standard Method of Philosophical Inquiry. It is my belief that if we arm ourselves with a more robust framework for discussing, debating, deciphering, and deconstructing today’s never ending waterfall of digitally distributed information, we might have a better shot at coming to a higher number of valid conclusions about the world. Indeed, this is the very purpose of philosophy in its most pragmatic sense: to make our ideas clear, not to muddy the waters.

Standard Method of Philosophical Inquiry

  1. Define the domain
  2. Explore the domain
  3. Initialize the argument
  4. Engage via proper inquiry and argumentation with style

1. Define the domain: What are we talking about?

This is your first opportunity to state what it is you’ll be talking, writing, or arguing about. More generally and in short, simply (but precisely) state the topic. In addition, be sure to inform your reader or audience of what will not be part of the discussion. This is called restricting the scope. Another important step in defining the domain is “bracketing,” which is a term used in philosophy to set aside special cases. These special cases are technically part of the domain of inquiry, but due to a number of factors specific to each case, they don’t fit neatly within the path of discourse that will be followed as the inquiry progresses.

As an example, we may want to set the stage for a philosophical inquiry concerning the nature of consciousness. We may state, while defining the domain, that we will be concerned with differing states of consciousness such as sleeping and waking states, but that this particular inquiry will not be concerned with what are known as “out-of-body experiences.” Thus, the domain of our philosophical inquiry is defined as one concerning the nature of consciousness as restricted to sleeping and waking states, but bracketing (or setting aside) out-of-body experiences for consideration at another time.

The goal of defining the domain and restricting its scope is simply to narrow down the range of possible inquiries from an infinite set of topics or questions to a single clearly defined area of interest. The goal of bracketing is to make further progress by clarifying which possible points of contention within that area of interest are up for grabs, versus which ones we will reserve our judgment for at another time. There are a number of good reasons to bracket special cases within any given domain, including that they fall outside one’s expertise or individual knowledge, or because they’re problems that are too easily solved and consensus is already assumed, or even because they are simply too boring to discuss at this time.

In the example given here, out-of-body experiences are bracketed because although understanding their intricacies might be useful for understanding the nature of consciousness as a whole, these experiences are brought about by a number of various factors (e.g. meditation, intoxication, near-death experiences, etc.) which are necessary to be discussed in detail individually and in their own context. Out-of-body experiences are certainly within the domain as defined, but to include them in the broader discussion would only serve to slow down or hijack the inquiry as a whole.

2. Exploring the domain: What have others said?

Exploring the domain can be half the fun of the entire philosophical inquiry. In the previous step of the inquiry we defined the domain to say what it is we’ll be talking about. In this step, what we present our readers or audience with are the ideas and arguments of others working within this domain. A thorough explanation includes defining technical terms often encountered within the domain, as well as explanations of common themes or theories espoused by those working within the domain.

Taking again the example domain of the nature of consciousness, here we might explore the mind-body problem, or we might explain what philosophers of mind refer to as the hard problem of consciousness. It might also be useful in this exploration to define terms such as intentionality or qualia. These are terms and ideas that our argument might intersect with or rely upon at various points within the broader inquiry, but unless we establish a foundational understanding of them first, our argument will be less coherent to our reader or audience, and the philosophical inquiry as a whole will be less fruitful.

Exploring the domain is also an opportunity to discuss specific works by other thinkers within the domain as a way of providing necessary context for the remainder of inquiry. In cases where we plan to argue in opposition to a particular theory or thinker, this is the appropriate place to introduce the argument we intend to oppose. For example, we might provide a description of Daniel Dennett’s view of Physicalism or his definition of “wetware,” or we may choose to present an overview of his characterization of the mind-body problem by paraphrasing his use of the well-known brain-in-a-vat thought experiment.

In any case, thoroughly exploring the domain also serves to establish one’s own credibility on the topic, and to illustrate one’s standing as a reputable (or at the very least informed) individual, whose opinions, beliefs, research, and conclusions ought to be taken seriously.

3. Initialize the argument: Where will I dive in?

Initialization is a term I’ve taken from computer programming. In the sequential process of running a program, initialization is the assignment of all variables to their original state. It is an essential step to running the program because it determines the resulting features or outcomes that follow as the program runs. If you imagine the domain as an Olympic-sized swimming pool, initializing an argument takes place the moment you step onto the diving board. It is the moment of truth before diving in, where everything is laid bare prior to fully progressing one’s own argument or viewpoint.

To initialize an argument, begin by acknowledging any presumptions you’ve made in order to support the argument you intend to progress. Some presumptions are easily conceded and generally agreed to be true, while others might merit entire philosophical inquiries of their own in order to establish their validity. The key here is to remember that presumptions underly an argument, but they aren’t necessarily part of the argument itself. For example, you might present a white paper from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as part of your argument that wide-scale anthropogenic climate change is occurring due to the increased presence of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. Your presumption here is that the IPCC is a reliable source of climate data, and I would agree. This is a clear example of one type of presumption we make hundreds of times a day, often without a second thought: the presumption of a source’s reliability.

Next, you’ll want to explicitly state any attitudinal stances or biases you bring with you as an agent with a subjective point of view. Let’s deconstruct the term attitudinal stance, which is common in philosophy. Simply put, it is a sort of theoretical attitude, belief set, or state of mind about a specific topic that informs one’s opinion about a topic and in turn affects one’s interpretation or judgement of that topic. For example, you might have an attitudinal stance about Biblical reasoning, namely that it isn’t a valid basis upon which to form rational conclusions. Or, you might have an attitudinal stance about art, namely that it is a uniquely human endeavor that occurs at the intersection of creativity and spontaneity.

Acknowledging the former stance as part of initialization would have a drastic effect on the trajectory of an argument addressing the origins of our species. Likewise, stating an adherence to the latter stance would affect the trajectory of an argument addressing the moral status of non-humans, which by virtue of one’s stated attitude automatically precludes animals from being capable of producing art.

Finally, it’s always good form to acknowledge one’s own blindspots and potential conflicts of interest before progressing an argument. For example, if you intend to discuss the nature of consciousness, you would do well to distinguish yourself as a philosopher rather than a neuroscientist or psychologist. Each field boasts a number of strengths not shared by its counterparts, as well as a number of shortfalls. Additionally, when discussing the current opioid epidemic in America, it would be relevant to know if your viewpoint is informed by your experience as a member of the governing board of a pharmaceutical company versus your experience as a parent of a child whose life was lost as a result of addiction.

4. Engage via proper inquiry and argumentation with style: What do I have to contribute?

The fourth and final step of the Standard Method is where much of what everyday people associate with philosophy takes place. It is here that you finally present your own argument and engage directly with the ideas of others previously explored in the inquiry. In order to meaningfully engage with the domain of inquiry, we must take time to challenge any shaky propositions presented by other thinkers, clarify the meanings of words or concepts that have previously been accepted with little examination, and identify any logical fallacies that have been overlooked prior to our own inquiry into the domain. This is what is meant by proper inquiry.

There are many ways to formulate a skillfully crafted argument, but the minimum standard against which all philosophical arguments are judged is validity. An argument is valid if and only if it is impossible for the conclusion to be false while its premises are all true. In other words, if the premises of your argument are all simultaneously true, the conclusion must necessarily follow. In the context of philosophy, testing for validity sets the bar much higher than a simple “that makes sense.” This is what is meant by proper argumentation.

However, proper inquiry combined with proper argumentation is still not enough. As a final cherry on top, we must inquire and argue with style. We accomplish this through strict adherence to discourse ethics of high standards. This means that we elevate the discourse through deference for others working within the domain, and by honoring intellectual diversity as long as it’s authentically and respectfully expressed. We ask follow-up questions in good faith, and we offer a charitable reading of opposing viewpoints. We utilize humor tactically, deploy irony where appropriate, and we acknowledge our own human foibles as a way of constructing a bullet-proof ethos that even Ayn Rand would envy.

Epistemic Value in the Tweet Economy (2013)

Update 15 August 2018: Twitter has devolved to a true garbage fire of a social network, and earlier this year I deleted my account. The toxic culture of Twitter has become a negative influence in the world and on the Internet overall, and it’s a place where I no longer have any desire to maintain a presence.

First published 16 November 2010, Epistemic Value in the Tweet Economy quite accurately predicted the ways in which activists and young revolutionaries the world over would utilize services such as Twitter to stand against social injustice and organize to oppose political corruption. Given recent events in the United States surrounding government surveillance of US citizens, I now find it appropriate to repost this piece with modest and timely revisions.

Since Twitter’s launch in July 2006, this simple service has emerged to provide a new vehicle for the transfer of communication to hundreds of millions of users.

With the finite, 140-character count each tweet is constrained to, Twitter users must thoughtfully consider the content of each tweet. 140 characters can be limiting, and often Twitter users must take time to shorten links using services such as bit.ly, include relevant hashtags, tag fellow Twitter users using @replies, and consider a number of other aspects of the culture(s) and etiquette which have sprung forth from the emergent virtual structure that is Twitter.Read More »