The Oort Cloud


In a recent blog entry, Roderick Long links to and comments on John Searle's paper Philosophy in a New Century. Searle claims that the undeniable growth of knowledge during the "present era" renders philosophical skepticism obsolete; instead, it is time for "a new kind of philosophy" whose starting point is "what we know about the real world". I agree with Long that Searle's argument is a bit weird, because it was possible to found a philosophy on the reality of human knowledge long before the present day: in fact, Aristotle did just that over two thousand years ago. The progress of science is not the hinge upon which turns the plausibility of the skeptical premise, and Searle's assumption that science matters in this way elicits from Long a charge of scientism.

Yet I would go farther than either Long or Searle: I think that the relentless march of science will eventually lead, not to a new kind of philosophy, but to the extinction of philosophy altogether. As I wrote many years ago in my journal, as the realm of machines and science expands, philosophy contracts. I see the discipline of philosophy as a kind of intellectual nebula or Oort cloud: a hot, gaseous region in which stars are birthed. Once upon a time, philosophy contained many disciplines that have since emerged as sciences unto themselves: astronomy, cosmology, economics, psychology, political science, logic, jurisprudence, and so on. With the advancement of science, we can expect further sciences to emerge from philosophy (a process already underway): decision theory, information theory, cognitive science, even (eventually) notoriously thorny fields like ethics and aesthetics.

A big question for philosophers is: what can they do to help those sciences emerge? Part of the work remaining for philosophers is to clarify what Long (following John McDowell) calls "constitutive conditions" (that which makes X what it is), which help determine what investigators need to look for in a certain field of study. Kurt Gödel calls this task a matter of defining the "primitives" of a discipline. For example, he says that "the beginning of physics was Newton's work of 1687, which needs only very simple primitives: force, mass, law" (Hao Wang, A Logical Journey, p. 167). Gödel looked for similar insights within philosophy itself: "philosophy as exact theory should do for metaphysics as much as Newton did for physics" (Hao Wang, From Mathematics to Philosophy, p. 85).

I think Gödel's search was overly broad. It's unrealistic to try to do for metaphysics what Newton did for physics. Better to work on more tightly-focused parts of philosophy, just as Gödel himself did in the realm of mathematical logic (which was once considered part of philosophy but no longer is). That's why areas such as decision theory seem ripe for the picking. Some claim that John Rawls obtained similar results with regard to a theory of justice (Gödel's colleague Hao Wang seemed to think so), but I have my doubts -- Rawls made some kind of progress toward a clearer understanding of justice as a "primitive" in social affairs, but he got enough wrong (especially from the more libertarian perspective of contract and other voluntary relations) that his work is not particularly helpful in moving toward a fully free society (if you want justice, work for freedom).

Another approach is what Hao Wang called "phenomenography": an updated pursuit of something like Francis Bacon's Great Instauration, which would map out the terrain of accumulated human knowledge and thereby move beyond analytic philosophy by doing justice to what we know.

I'm slowly working on an extended essay about Wang and Gödel, in which I plan to explore these issues at greater length. But I think we can safely say that, just as with the original Oort cloud (whose collapse formed the sun and planets), philosophy's contraction will be humanity's gain.

Peter Saint-Andre > Journal