Recently I was contacted in my capacity as Club President with a request by one Philip Atkinson who expressed a wish to meet with the group and speak about his views on Philosophy. Before deciding whether or not it's wise for such a meeting to occur, I thought it would be educational (for all parties) if various contributing members could take a look at his work on his website and present their reactions in a series of posts. Mr Atkinson seems keen to have people try to refute his arguments, and I hope that other members will be happy to oblige him. I know I am.
So I'd like to open with my thoughts on A Definition Of Philosophy - The Study Of Understanding
(Please go and read it, this won't make much sense otherwise).
Atkinson's opening remark sets the tone for the whole piece, and isn't without it's problems. While I agree that Philosophy is viewed with some suspicion and trepidation by much of the populace, I'd hardly take this as a sign that it is an "unhelpful discipline". A large group of people thinking that something was true never made it so (well maybe, more of that later) for example the earth being flat and so forth. A quick tour of Mr Atkinson's site reveals that he doesn't believe that the belief of the masses constitutes truth or even reasonable evidence. The difficulty in discovering the achievements of philosophy, if I may be so direct, arises from a lack of serious study of the subject.
The assertion that it can be made into a "useful science" presents a few issues as well. MH has suggested that the move should be in the other direction - that Science should regognise its philosophical beginnings. I'll leave that argument to him for the moment. What I will ask is that we take the time to think about what is meant by 'useful' in this context, and who exactly reaps the benefit.
So on to the "self evident" truths, which I have italicised for the sake of clarity. In examining these, each of which constitutes a premise in Mr Atkinson's argument, I'll look at if they are actually true or at least plausible and if they are indeed self-evident. The validity (or lack thereof) of the argument will become apparent along the way.
1. Philosophy is the study of understanding.
Perhaps. We could get into it being the rational investigation of questions about existence and knowledge, but it is unnecessary, and soon you'll see why.
2. Understanding is the bestowing of meaning upon observations.
Once again, I’d say maybe. But be aware that there are two ways that this definition can be taken at this point. If an event occurs I can understand how it happened (the car fell into the river because the bridge collapsed) without understanding why it happened (was there a divine purpose to the tragedy?). This definition talks about meaning as if it were the same as belief, which isn’t consistent with what follows.
3. Meaning is the realisation obtained by applying beliefs to the observations of an understanding —the use of reason. These beliefs are the understanding .
Now the problem becomes apparent: ‘Understanding’ is defined in terms of ‘Meaning’ and vice-versa. Unless this circularity is dealt with the whole argument is a house built on sand. “Meaning is the realisation obtained by applying beliefs to observations.” would have made more sense. If we take ‘realisation’ to be a process of coming to or gaining a belief (which seems plausible), then Meaning is the process of gaining beliefs through the application of other beliefs to the observations of an understanding. But if we apply this definition to point 2, Understanding becomes ‘the bestowing of a process of gaining beliefs upon observations’, which does not really make sense and makes point 3 somewhat ungainly. It also highlights how inconsistent the final assertion in point 3 is.
The entirety of follows is already problematic as Atkinson hasn’t yet produced an adequate non-circular definition of ‘understanding’, so there is no real reason to accept any of it till that problem is resolved. However in the interest of being through I’ve made brief responses to what remains.
4. Two Kinds Of Beliefs:
i. Control the Understanding —those bestowed by nature and modified by infancy in the creation of an understanding so are unchangeable: that is, the instincts and infantile experiences, which dictate what the creature should, or should not, do — survive, eat, sleep, multiply, etc.— thus allowing the recognition of right from wrong, and are the morality of the understanding.
That the factors that dictate our behaviour might dictate or influence what we then take to be moral or immoral behaviour. This is controversial enough, but to take the further step that these factors for what is actually morally right or wrong, which seems to be implied here, is much longer bow to draw. Following the ‘morality’ link provides further expansions of what Mr Atkinson thinks constitutes morality, how it should be taught and its importance.
ii. Tools of the Understanding — those revealed by the understanding's experience of cause and effect. That is, if you step off a cliff you fall, and these axioms, which are collected and refined throughout the life of the understanding, allow the recognition of true or false and are the knowledge of the understanding.
If it is the collection of axioms through experience that allow us to judge truth from falsity, then how do we make this judgement in a new case where there are no axioms applicable to it? Are all tools of the understanding revealed through experience? If they are then how do we even recognise cause and effect? Kant (I think) suggests that this is an innate ability.
— this Morality and Knowledge together form the beliefs, or truths, of the understanding. Hence:
Beliefs and Truths are not always interchangeable, see below.
5. Truth is the beliefs, or realisations, of an understanding, and is used to create the reality of an understanding.
Most philosophers, myself included, would assert that there is more to Truth than just beliefs or realisations. Some beliefs and the like can be wrong. A person can believe P when not-P is the actual real state of the world. Even if you ascribe to an ‘assertability’ rather than truth value type of view, then you would still have a test of community or expert acceptance that would have to be passed before something could be called a ‘truth’. Both of the categories of ‘belief’ above can fall prey to either of these objections. You need good reasons for moving something from the category of ‘belief’ to that of ‘truth’ and they are simply not supplied in this case.
6. Reality is the creation of an understanding as it is the remembered meanings, or experience, of an understanding and consists of:
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i. The nature of the understanding—its senses
The position of the understanding—what it can observe
The experience of the understanding—the meaning it realises.
This sounds like the claim is that reality is somehow constructed in your head, which is a view popular with some philosophers, but not with others. At the risk of being labelled a realist, could we not just say that ‘reality is’?
To take another tack, if reality is created from experience, then with no experience there is either no reality at all, or you have no grip on it, depending on what level of ontological commitment you feel like taking on. Regardless, either situation leaves no room for an account of how we go about creating/making sense of reality if only experience can give us the tools to do so.
7. Wisdom is the habits (traditions) adopted by an understanding to achieve the greatest benefit from its reality.
Even if wisdom was the habits or traditions of a community or individual, what the ‘greatest benefit’ is, is not self-evident. Achieving the greatest benefit is (arguably) not always the most morally right course of action for an individual or even for a community. The ends might not justify the means. And knowing how to do the morally or ethically wrong thing for one's own benefit is not what everyone would consider 'wise', though some would.
To sum up:
It is arguable that all of the “Self-evident truths” presented here are not true, and most certainly not self-evident. For something to be self-evident, it needs to be either true by definition, or so obvious as to require no explanation. ‘A triangle has 3 sides’ is self-evident, and some philosophers might consider the notion that one can now that know that one is conscious is self-evident. None of Atkinson's propositions presented above are analytically true, nor is it implausible to deny their truth. His declarations therefore are not self-evident and I dare anyone to adequately explain to me how I’m wrong on that score.
It is worth noting that it can't be claimed that I have misunderstood these self-evident statements. If a proposition is claimed to be self-evident, it is an argumentative fallacy to assert that disagreement with the proposition indicates a misunderstanding of it.
On a more serious note, the argument simply does not fit together in a logical structure. In fact the whole thing would have worked better if the assertions were presented in the opposite order as the definitions run in the totally wrong direction, when they go anywhere at all. Declaring something to be true does not make it so. I would encourage readers to read, and respond to Mr Atkinson’s work including that regarding Recognising Good And Evil and The End Of Western Civilization.