A response to Your Comments on "Why Paul Graham is (sort of) wrong about philosophy"

First, I want to thank you guys for reading, criticizing, and commenting on my post. Given that there’s so many other excellent things you could have been reading, I’m honored that you spent a little time on what I’ve written.

Now, let’s respond to some comments:

Credentials

A couple of comments came up about my “credentials.” Here’s some info: I studied philosophy and religion as an undergrad at the University of Central Florida. After that, I went on to get my master’s degree in philosophy at Tufts University, a school with one of the top philosophy master’s programs in the country. None of this is supposed to make you think that I’m an authority on philosophy. I’m not. I know enough about philosophy to really appreciate how little I know.

The relationship between definitions and arguments

A lot of comments came up about the relationship between the meanings of words and philosophical questions. Here’s the passage that generated a lot of confusion:

Suppose I’m wondering whether it is it right for me demand extra equity because I’m the guy who came up with the idea for our startup. This is not a question about the meaning of my words. If someone responded to my wonderings by saying, “It depends what you mean by the word, ‘right’,” we’d probably think they have missed something.

And here’s one comment that captures what a lot of people seemed to be worried about in my argument:

I haven't studied philosophy, so I may be naive here, but does this question NOT depend on the definition of "right"? In a practical discussion, maybe both parties would agree that "right" in this case means "fair, in accordance with my contributions to this startup".

I never meant to suggest that answers to philosophical questions do not depend on the meanings of key terms. In fact, I think its likely that any answer to any question we ask depends on the meaning of the terms we use to ask it. I should have been clearer on this point.

What I was trying to suggest in above passage was that when we argue about what we ought to do, we are not arguing over the meaning of a word. The meaning of a word is usually settled by stipulation or by appealing to ordinary usage.¹ Neither stipulation, nor ordinary usage of the word “right” settles the question of whether, for example, it would be right for me to go on a killing spree tomorrow.

To put the point in another way: Arguing about whether I should get extra equity as the idea guy is not like arguing over whether “a three sided figure” is a good definition of a triangle.

Maybe you disagree with me. That’s fine, but I think that ultimately this doesn’t help Graham’s position. I’ll explain why in the next section.

Evidence that philosophers could pass Graham’s “placebo test”

A lot of your comments raise philosophical questions. They are questions that philosophers have asked and are still asking.  So, it looks like we might be in a position to apply Graham’s placebo test to our own conversation.

Let’s ask ourselves: “Do we think we could tell the difference between the conversation we are having and a fake placebo conversation filled with nonsense?” I think we could, and if you disagree, this puts you in kind of awkward position, no? If you aren’t sure whether you could distinguish your own thoughts from nonsense, then maybe I shouldn’t take you seriously. If you think you can distinguish your comments and this conversation from nonsense, then, given that this a philosophical conversation, I think we have evidence that not all philosophical conversations are nonsensical. If we think that we could distinguish between a “real” philosophical conversation and nonsense, why shouldn’t we also think that many professors, who have studied philosophy a lot longer than we have, could also pass Graham’s placebo test?

With that said, we can now see that if you disagree with my argument in the previous section (about the meaning of words) and if you think that you’re disagreement should be taken seriously, you are just helping to show that philosophy is not a trivial subject for stupid people. By the way, I don’t think you are crazy if you think that the meaning of the word “right” actually does settle our moral disputes. There are smart people who have thought this. They are called “analytical naturalists.”

Did I Misrepresent Graham’s position?

Here’s another passage that got me in to trouble:

To say that a question can be answered by saying, “Depends on what you mean by X” is far from proving that the question is motivated by a confusion over words. Case in point: Did evolution happen? Depends on what you mean by “evolution.”

Here’s what I’m not saying in this passage:

I’m not saying that Graham thinks that all philosophical questions can be answered this way. In fact, as I point out a few sentences later, I’m not even really committed to saying that this is Graham’s argument for why philosophy is largely nonsense:

Maybe Graham wasn’t really trying to argue that philosophy is based on confusions over words...

My point in the above passage was just to say, “Where’s the argument that philosophy is nonsense? If Graham meant to argue for that by suggesting that you can answer a philosophical question with ‘Depends on what you mean by X,’ then he should said more.”

Yikes. I’m out of words, so I guess that’s all the comments I’ll address for now. Thanks again for conversing with me on this issue.

Notes:

  1. Obviously, whether this statement is true depends on what we mean when we use the word “meaning.” It turns out that this is a question that philosophers try to answer.