The Weirdness of the World: Schwitzgebel

I have recently been made aware of a new book, The Weirdness of the Worldby the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel.

Here’s a brief description from Princeton University Press:

Do we live inside a simulated reality or a pocket universe embedded in a larger structure about which we know virtually nothing? Is consciousness a purely physical matter, or might it require something extra, something nonphysical? According to the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, it’s hard to say. In The Weirdness of the World Schwitzgebel argues that the answers to these fundamental questions lie beyond our powers of comprehension. We can be certain only that the truth—whatever it is—is weird. Philosophy, he proposes, can aim to open—to reveal possibilities we had not previously appreciated—or to close, to narrow down to the one correct theory of the phenomenon in question. Schwitzgebel argues for a philosophy that opens.

[In the process] … Schwitzgebel makes a persuasive case for the thrill of considering the most bizarre philosophical possibilities.

In his review of Schwitzgebel’s book (in the journal Science) the philosopher Edouard Machery writes:

There are two kinds of philosophers: swallows and moles. Swallows love to soar and to entertain philosophical hypotheses at best loosely connected with empirical knowledge. Plato and Gottfried Leibniz are paradigmatic swallows. Moles, on the contrary, rummage through mundane facts about our world and aim at better understanding it. Aristotle, William James, and Hans Reichenbach are paradigmatic moles. Eric Schwitzgebel is unabashedly a swallow.

Machery’s goal in his recent book Philosophy Within Its Proper Bounds was “to curtail the flights of fancy with which contemporary philosophers are enamored.” Obviously, Machery and Schwitzgebel disagree about the value of philosophical speculation.

In defense against Machery’s critical review, Schwitzgebel made the following three points in response on his blog:

First, if anyone is going to speculate about wild possibilities concerning the fundamental nature of things, philosophers should be among them.

It would be a sad, gray world if our reasoning was always confined to “proper bounds” and we couldn’t reflect on issues like dream skepticism, group consciousness, and infinitude. Shouldn’t it be part of the job description of philosophy to explore such ideas, considering what can or should be made of them?

Such speculations needn’t be entirely unconstrained by empirical facts, even if empirical science fails to deliver decisive answers. In The Weirdness of the World, my speculations always start from empirical observation. My discussion of dream skepticism engages with the science of dreams; my discussion of group consciousness engages with the science of consciousness; my chapter on the possible infinite future — collaborative with physicist and philosopher of physics Jacob Barandes — is grounded in the standard working assumptions of mainstream physics. Scientifically informed philosophers are as well-positioned as anyone to speculate about wild hypotheticals that naturally intrigue us (at least some of us). To stand athwart such speculations, saying “Thou shalt not enter this epistemic wilderness!” is to reject an intrinsically valuable form of human philosophical curiosity.

Second, we can distinguish two types of swallow: those confident that their wild hypotheses are correct and those who merely entertain and explore such hypotheses.

Maybe Plato was convinced of the reality of Forms and the recollection theory of memory. Maybe Leibniz was convinced that the world was composed of monads in pre-established harmony. But Zhuangzi was a self-undermining skeptic who appears to have taken none of his wild speculations as established fact.

I don’t argue that the United States definitely has conscious experiences; I argue that if we accept standard materialist approaches to consciousness, they seem to imply that it does and that therefore we should take the idea seriously as a possibility. I don’t argue that this is a dream or a short-term simulation; I argue that our ordinary culturally-given understanding of the world and mainstream scientific assumptions combine to justify assigning a non-trivial (maybe about 0.1%) credence to both of those possibilities. Barandes and I don’t argue that there definitely is an infinite future in which future counterparts of you enact almost every possible action, but only that it follows from “certain not wholly implausible assumptions”.

When soaring in speculation far beyond the mundane local tree branches, doubt is appropriate. The most natural critique of swallows is that they appear to believe wild things on thin evidence. That critique is harder to sustain when the swallow explicitly treats the speculations as speculations only, rather than as established facts.

Third, the swallow and the mole can collaborate — even in the work of a single philosopher. As Jonathan Birch comments in my Facebook post linking to Machery’s book review, two of Edouard’s paradigmatic examples of moles — Aristotle and William James — are probably not best thought of as pure moles, but rather as swallow-moles. They dug around quite a bit in mundane empirical facts, yes. But they sometimes also soared with the swallows. Aristotle speculated on the existence of a supraphysical unmoved mover responsible for the existence of the physical world. James speculated about metaphysical “neutral monism” concerning mind and matter and celebrated religious belief beyond the evidence.

I too have done a fair bit of mundane empirical work — for example, on the moral behavior of ethics professors (e.g., here and here), on introspective method (e.g., here and here), and on the consequences of exposure to ethical argumentation (e.g., here and here). Even when I am not myself running the empirical studies, much of my work engages with nitty-gritty empirical detail (e.g., on the history of reports of coloration in dreams, on the cognitive capacites of garden snails, on the accuracy of visual imagery reports, and on psychological measures of well-being).

Often, I think, deep empirical mole-digging is valuable for one’s subsequent speculative soaring. Digging into the details of cosmological models enables better informed speculation about the distant future. Digging into the details of the behavior of ethics students and professors enables better informed speculation about the general relation between ethical reflection and ethical behavior. Digging into the details of dream reports enables better informed speculation about dream skepticism. As Zhuangzi imagines, a low-lying fish can transform into a soaring phoenix.

No single researcher needs to do both the digging and the soaring, even if some of us enjoy both types of task. But it’s valuable to have a whole ecosystem of moles and swallows, foxes and hedgehogsants and anteaterstruth philosophers and dare philosophers, and so on.

I’m honored that Machery counts me among the swallows. I celebrate his moleishness. Let’s dig and soar!

[Author’s Note. The mole/swallow distinction is similar to William James’ distinction between tough and tender-minded thinkers and Alan Watt’s differentiating between pricklies and gooeys.]

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2 thoughts on “The Weirdness of the World: Schwitzgebel

  1. I think the terms of this debate are awfully full of prejudgment. Swallow vs mole. Soaring vs digging. Mundane empirical work.

    I would instead say Hume said it well that the wisdom is basing one’s belief in proportion to the evidence. And philosophy should be to love finding that proportion. Rather than a mole, I would prefer to be a stunt kite — performing stunning feats of logic while being tied to the earth. I support that as opposed to being a cheap Mylar balloon untethered to reality and being blown about in fits of apparent but ultimately useless fancy.

    I haven’t read Schwitzgabel’s latest book but I thought his article on the consciousness of the United States was untethered balloon work.

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