Debunking Philosophy: The Foolish Quest for Infallibility

Idiotium: rare element of which philosophers’ brains are made.

In The Theory of Imitation, specifically in the discussion of free will and determinism, I pointed out that the age-old debate about whether human beings have free will, or whether our actions are determined, is pointless because we cannot change anything about it. The only thing we can change is our opinion about this matter, which is obviously very different from the reality. In this unending and, in my opinion, mostly futile, philosophical debate, we have mistaken our opinion about the nature of reality for reality. When a person says, “Yes, human beings have free will,” or “No, human beings don’t have free will,” one often mistakenly believes that one has altered this particular aspect of reality, which obviously is not true. When a person changes one’s opinion about something, that is the only thing that has changed – one’s opinion – and not the corresponding reality. Of course, in many cases, this does, or can, have significant practical effects, such as by changing the way one behaves, but this is not true about the issue of whether our actions are free or not, since, regardless of what one believes, one still has to make decisions about many things, such as what one will do with one’s time, where one will live, the kind of work one will do, whom one will marry, or if one will marry at all, how many children one will have, what time one will wake up, what one will eat for breakfast, whether one will spend one’s time pondering the issue of whether humans have free will or not, how many cookies one will eat, what television program one will watch, and so on.

Many of the perennial problems of philosophy can be resolved in a similar manner, or shown to be completely trivial. In “The Cloud Cuckoo Land of False Ideas,” we saw that the unresolved debate between Rationalism and Empiricism arose entirely from the belief that only one of these philosophies could be true, which in turn arose from the naive human belief in universality, that is, that a philosophy or proposition must be universally valid or universally applicable in order to be true. In a later essay, we will see that the so-called “Problem of Evil,” which has befuddled theologians and philosophers for millennia, is due entirely to mistakenly attributing to God our very specific human way of perceiving and evaluating the world. In this essay, I will consider some other traditional philosophical problems that have beguiled that very peculiar and easily confused subspecies of humanity, homo philosophicus ridiculus.

Who shaved Bertrand Russell, the originator of Russell’s Paradox?

Here is an example of Russell’s Paradox. Imagine a village in which there is a barber whose job it is to shave all (and only) the people who don’t shave themselves. If I lived there, I’d probably shave myself – I don’t think I’d be organized enough to get to the barber every day and I can shave myself perfectly well. And it would probably work out too expensive for me. But if I decided I didn’t want to, then the barber would be the one to shave me. But where does that leave the barber? He’s allowed to shave only people who don’t shave themselves. By this rule, he can’t ever shave himself because he can only shave people who don’t shave themselves. This is going to get difficult for him. Usually if someone can’t shave himself in this village it is the barber who does it for him. But the rule won’t allow the barber to do that, because that would turn him into someone who shaved himself – but the barber only shaves the ones who don’t shave themselves.

This is a situation that seems to lead to a direct contradiction – saying something is both true and false. That’s what a paradox is. […] What Russell discovered was that when a set refers to itself this sort of paradox emerges. Take another famous example of the same sort of thing: ‘This sentence is false.’ This is a paradox too. If the words ‘This sentence is false’ mean what they seem to mean (and are true) then the sentence is false – which then means that what it states is true! This seems to suggest that the sentence is both true and false. But a sentence can’t be true and false at the same time. That’s a basic part of logic. So there’s the paradox.[1]

In regards to shaving, there are only three possibilities: either a man shaves himself, he is shaved by someone else, or he doesn’t shave and lets his facial hair grow. There is no actual, living person who belongs to the category posited by Russell’s Paradox, that is, someone who, because of it, is immobilized or prevented from shaving himself or from having himself shaved by someone else.

An important point to understand is that paradoxes like these can only be expressed in terms of language. After all, there are no paradoxes or contradictions in reality, only in our human conceptions of, or our linguistic declarations about, reality. This is shown by the fact that it is not possible to express Russell’s Paradox, and the contradiction to which it leads, only by using pictures, since every picture must show a man shaving himself, being shaved by someone else, or not shaving and letting one’s facial hair grow. Another important point is that this paradox has nothing at all to do with reality, for in the real world, all men, including barbers, who want to be shaved either shave themselves or are shaven by someone else. Thus, in terms of the real world, this paradox, as well as paradoxes like it, is completely trivial. Contrary to what Bertrand Russell and others have declared about what these sorts of paradoxes tell us about the world, they tell us absolutely nothing about the world; they only tell us something about our human-invented system of logic, as well as the dangers and pitfalls of applying logic indiscriminately to the real world.

The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this example is that we should be careful when applying logic and its rigid, overly simplified categories – which have only two possibilities, A or not A, true or not true – to the real world, lest the blind adherence to it lead us into confusion, falsehood, or absurdity. Unfortunately, there have been many people throughout the ages who have failed to understand this simple fact about logic, and human intellectual constructions in general, and their slippery, inexact relationship with reality. This important fact about our models and theories about the world was understood by the economic historian Alfred Chandler, who devoted his professional life to studying the historical growth and development of large corporations.

One cannot emphasize too strongly that operator (manager), “locum tenens,” and entrepreneur are ideal types with which the generic figures of reality must be compared, if analysis of reality is desired. Of course, while a theoretical model must be clear-cut to serve as a useful tool for the analysis of reality, reality itself never is precise.[2]

To the end of this statement I would add, “nor is reality as regular, consistent, and simple as our human theories, predictions, and generalizations about it often lead us to believe.”

Of course, we should take into consideration the fact that Chandler was a historian, and that the phenomena studied by historians are far less regular or precise than the subject matter of sciences like physics and chemistry; but still, his perceptive observation applies to many other fields of study besides history, in particular to all the other humanities, including economics.

Did Theseus return in the same ship in which he set out to slay the Minotaur?

There is a philosophical paradox called the Ship of Theseus that, philosophers claim, raises an interesting point about the nature of identity.[3] It was first formulated by the ancient Greek writer Plutarch. Later, an extension was made to it by Thomas Hobbes. Imagine if, after Theseus embarks on a long sea voyage, he has to replace every part and plank of his wooden ship so that, when he returns, there is not a single part of the ship that is the same as it was when he set out. Moreover, suppose that another ship follows Theseus’ ship and collects all the discarded parts of the original ship and reassembles them. Can we say that Theseus returns in the same ship that he set out? And what about the reconstructed ship – should we not rather call this Theseus’ ship rather than the newer vessel in which he returns from his voyage, since it consists of all the original pieces that comprised his ship when he first set out?

To resolve this paradox about identity, we need to have recourse to two facts about the world: first, no large thing remains exactly the same,[4] and second, the purpose of human perception is to enable us to survive, which it does by providing us with practical – and not necessarily philosophical or scientific – knowledge about the world we live in. Although we can employ our senses, aided by more precise observing or measuring devices, such as microscopes, telescopes, clocks, scales, and calibrated units of measurement, to discover precise, scientific knowledge about the world, we should remember that it was never the function of our senses to perform this goal.

In everyday life, we call things the same even though they are constantly changing. Mountains gradually erode, the composition of seas and oceans is continually changing, bright colours slowly fade, manufactured things like clothes and shoes wear out with use, living species evolve, and children gradually grow larger while older people begin slowly to diminish and decay. There is no living plant anywhere that remains exactly the same from day to day: its leaves grow larger or more numerous, it produces flowers that bloom temporarily and then shrivel up, while some parts of the plant start to wither and die. The entity that we call the Pacific Ocean is not the same entity, and does not contain the same living creatures, literally from one moment to the next. It is only on maps that the Pacific Ocean, or any other large geographic entity, remains unchanging. In real life, it is constantly in flux and never remains the same. We now know that our bodies constantly produce new cells, whether skin, blood, muscle, organ, nail, or hair cells, to replace older cells that die or fall out, and then discarded, just like the parts of Theseus’ ship. These changes can be undetectable to someone who sees something regularly, such as a person or object; but they are obvious to someone who sees the person or object only occasionally at longer intervals of time. Even more durable things like wood, rock, metal, and plastic undergo minute changes in their composition, losing molecules or atoms on a regular basis, or undergoing slow chemical changes. But these microscopic changes are not detectable by our crude human senses because they did not evolve for this purpose. In other words, the idea of identity, uniformity, constancy, or sameness arose from our inability to detect the minute changes that all visible, meaning relatively large, things undergo with the passage of time.

What this means is that the category of immutable objects that never change, at least in the case of large objects like stones, insects, people, plants, animals, mountains, forests, oceans, planets, comets, stars, and galaxies, is completely empty. Hence, we should be careful when applying the deceptive attribute of unchanging sameness to any large thing that exists in the world, lest it confuse or deceive us, since things only stay, or appear to stay, the same temporarily, although these temporary periods may last for relatively long periods of time. In everyday life, this sort of confusion happens only rarely. The mother who claims that this little boy whom she has lost sight of is her son, even though physically he is not exactly the same person that he was the last time she saw him, would not be contradicted by anyone because of the philosophical nicety which we are considering.

If we examine this matter from a practical perspective, we will find that, just as in the case of Russell’s Paradox, the imaginary or hypothetical situation that was invented by these overly analytical and ingenious philosophers has never actually occurred or existed. Moreover, even if it were to occur, why should we care how we label these things? There is the ship that Theseus left in, the ship that he returned in, and the ship that was reconstructed out of the discarded parts of his original ship. It is only when we try to impose on this uncomplicated reality our human notion of identity, which in turn is based on certain human words like “same” and “identical,” that problems arise. In addition, an important practical point that has been completely overlooked by these impractical philosophers is that there is absolutely no doubt which of these two ships Theseus himself would have claimed and defended as his own: it would be the ship in which he returned, and not the one that was reconstructed out of the discarded parts of his original ship, which certainly would not be seaworthy, since it was constructed entirely out of worthless, weakened, decayed, or rotten timber.

The philosopher’s objection that these hypothetical situations, although they are invented and unreal, nevertheless have important implications for our understanding of concepts like sameness and identity is one that I deny. In everyday affairs, most of us know what the word “same” means: the continuity of an object through the dimension of time, regardless of any minute changes it may undergo, provided these changes are not sufficiently large so as to make us question whether it is the same object as it was before.[5] So, for example, when a person we know undergoes significant changes in one’s appearance or behaviour, such as by changing one’s hair, makeup, and clothes, or by giving away all of one’s possessions, shaving one’s head, and becoming a monk, one would say, “Wow, you’ve completely changed,” or “You’re not the same person that I knew,” or “I hardly recognize you anymore.” But if one continues to spend time with the person, one will probably become accustomed to and accept this “new” version of the person. Similarly, when an old house is renovated and repainted, the owners may declare, “It feels like we’re living in a new (or different) house.”

Those who spend much of their time thinking about such trivial matters are intellectual nose-pickers and thumb-twiddlers who try to get other people to pick their noses and twiddle their thumbs just like they do, declaring that these are important activities that should be performed by all people. These kinds of philosophical “problems” should instead be regarded in the same way as puzzles, cryptograms, conundrums, paradoxes, word games, and other sorts of curious things that some people like to formulate and other people like to spend their time trying to solve. Contrary to what their originators claim, however, they most certainly are not profound, and they do not reveal to us an important aspect of reality.


Let us now consider the Granddaddy of Modern Philosophy, the Wily Frenchman René Descartes, and his Quixotic Quest for Certainty.

Descartes sets out in his quest for certainty by thinking first about the evidence that comes through the senses: seeing, touching, smelling, tasting and hearing. Can we trust our senses? Not really, he concluded. The senses sometimes trick us. We make mistakes. Think about what you see. Is your sight reliable about everything? Should you always believe your eyes?

[…] And, Descartes points out, it would be unwise to trust something that has tricked you in the past. So he rejects the senses as a possible source of certainty. He can never be sure that his senses aren’t tricking him.[6]

What Descartes is saying is that, because our senses sometimes deceive us, they are never to be trusted. This is obviously silly, and is only something that a blundering logician or philosopher would think of doing.

This is an example of mistakenly applying logic to human affairs. In logic, there are only two possibilities – either a thing is true or it is not true. Hence, Descartes the logician concluded from the fact that our senses sometimes deceive us that they are never reliable as a source of true information about the world. But this is nonsense, for we rely each and every day of our lives on our senses to make decisions about, for example, the things we eat and drink – this looks and feels like an apple that is not rotten and therefore it is safe to eat; that looks, smells, and tastes like clean water and so I will drink it – whenever we move from one place to another – those stairs look solid, and so I will put my feet on them; moreover, I have seen with my own eyes other people walking safely on them before me – as well as our relationships and interactions with other creatures and things – this creature looks and sounds like my child, and so I will protect and nurture it, that bag looks like my bag, and so I will take it with me, that creature looks like a tiger, and so I will avoid it, or that object looks like a ball or philosopher, and so I will kick it.

Moreover, even though our senses sometimes do deceive us, we have no way of discovering these instances of deception except by the further use of our senses. Neither Descartes nor any of the many simpletons who have repeated the famous passage from his Meditations on First Philosophy about the unreliability of our senses have bothered to ask the following question: How do we find out when one of our senses has deceived us? The answer is, either by a closer examination of the object in question, or by seeking the testimony of other people. So, for example, we may think that a certain stone is a diamond because it looks like a diamond to the naked eye, but by performing certain tests or by asking an expert to examine it, we can determine whether it is or not. In other words, we rely on our senses, sometimes aided by using instruments or tests, or the senses of other people, to tell us when we have been deceived by our senses, since this is the only way we can gain knowledge about the world. This is the contradiction that is inherent in Descartes’ claim that our senses sometimes deceive us, and are therefore untrustworthy as a source of knowledge about the world, but was not realized by either him or his followers: we trust our senses sufficiently, or the sensory perception of other people, to tell us when our senses have deceived us.

Contrary to Descartes’ silly argument, the general reliability of our senses is demonstrated, each and every day of our lives, by the fact that we are alive, since that is the purpose of having senses – to tell us things about the world in which we live so that we can avoid dangerous situations, protect ourselves from harm, and find the things we need in order to survive and procreate. If our senses were really as unreliable as Descartes and his many silly imitators would have us believe, then we would all be dead, and we would not be having this discussion about whether or not our senses are a reliable source of information about the world.

Of course, some of you will object that Descartes was looking for an infallible source or criterion of truth, which obviously cannot be our senses, since they do indeed deceive us some of the time. But first of all, who said that such a thing exists? Descartes’ search for an infallible guide to the truth is no different from the many other historical searches for mythical or imaginary things like the philosopher’s stone, the Fountain of Youth, the Holy Grail, the Elixir of Life, or fabulous animals like the unicorn, a winged horse, or a rational philosopher.

Second and more importantly, Descartes failed abysmally in his endeavour. The supposedly infallible method that he claimed to have discovered, which is reasoning from true first principles, and applying the criteria of clarity and distinctness to all of our assumptions and conclusions, has been a veritable hall of mirrors in which, instead of looking out on the world, countless numbers of his followers have mistaken the reflections of their beliefs, prejudices, convictions, theories, utopias, fancies, deductions, speculations, and philosophical systems for the truth. In other words, René Descartes was an intellectual charlatan, and his many admirers mere abject, uncritical fools.

Of course, I am not rejecting reason as a source of knowledge about the world, for it is precisely this kind of categorical or absolute thinking and proceeding that I reject. But it is important to realize that, contrary to what Descartes and many others believed, there exists no infallible method for discovering the truth. Even the rigorous adherence to the scientific method, which works much of the time, can sometimes beget falsehood and erroneous conclusions. What we can say is that some methods are better than others. However, the rigorous adherence to a simplistic method like Descartes’ method will, sooner or later, lead people astray. This is because our incomplete, inaccurate, or overly simplistic human categories and conceptions of the world often fail to accord with the complexities and irregularities of reality.

René Descartes has done a great deal of harm by his extremely foolish belief that it is possible to achieve logical certainty in human affairs. In making the claim that he did, he created an intellectual maze in which countless numbers of his devoted followers have wandered around and gotten themselves lost. Error is like disease, in the sense that we must be ever-vigilant against it, since it can strike at any moment and in all places. Conversely, truth, like cleanliness, is achieved by constant vigilance and good habits – regular washing, sterilization, and cooking foods in the case of cleanliness, and verification, recognition of one’s biases and prejudices, and constant vigilance against error in the case of truth. Those who believe that their beliefs are, or their method is, infallible is like a person who believes that one is invincible against disease, and therefore one no longer needs to wash oneself or clean one’s possessions regularly, thereby rendering oneself more susceptible to disease.

In the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, it is said that God punished those who attempted to reach Heaven via the construction of a lofty tower by disseminating linguistic confusion among them so they could no longer understand each other. In much the same way, those who have followed in the footsteps of the arch-fool Descartes have been cursed with confusion about the ways of the world and the best way to discover and understand them, by seeking something, namely infallibility, that does not belong to any creatures that inhabit the imperfect and constantly changing terrestrial realm where we reside. We human beings have many foibles, limitations, and delusions, among which is our common tendency to think that we are better than we really are. We are not gods, and we would do well, while making fewer mistakes, if we remembered this fact, instead of arrogantly supposing ourselves to be something that we are not – and never will be.

[1] A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton, chapter 31. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2011.

[2] The Essential Alfred Chandler: Essays Toward a Historical Theory of Big Business, p. 134. Edited by Thomas K. McCraw. Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 1988.

[3] The following summary is derived from Philosophy 101: From Plato and Socrates to Ethics and Metaphysics, an Essential Primer on the History of Thought by Paul Kleinman. Adams Media, Avon, Massachusetts, 2013.

[4] At microscopic levels, we are told that molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles are uniform and more or less constant. For example, apart from isotopes, it is assumed that a water molecule is the same as any other water molecule, an atom of gold is the same as any other atom of gold, and a proton is the same as any other proton. Moreover, these things can exist for very long periods of time – millions or even billions of years – without undergoing alteration in their structure or composition. Thus, at these microscopic levels, we find the uniformity and permanence that do not exist at the macroscopic level of living organisms, everyday objects, geographical features, planets, and stars.

[5] I fully realize that this definition could very easily be attacked; but I certainly do not care about the silly opinions of any philosophers, or those who would waste their time disputing such trivial and unimportant matters. These individuals spend much of their time imitating that arrogant pest Socrates, who was beset by a mania for defining things precisely, and thus sought to show that most people don’t understand the meanings of common words such as “truth,” “beauty,” and “justice.”

[6] A Little History of Philosophy, chapter 11.