Visions and arguments

In an interview Hilary Putnam was asked "What makes a good philosopher?"; his response, though vague, was candid and enlightening:

No one thing. Just as there are different sorts of poet and different sorts of scientist, there are different sorts of philosopher. What made Kierkegaard a great philosopher was not the same thing that made Carnap a great philosopher. If one has to generalize, I would agree with Myles Burnyeat who once said that philosophy needs vision and arguments. Burnyeat's point was that there is something disappointing about a philosophical work that contains arguments, however good, which are not inspired by some genuine vision, and something disappointing about a philosophical work that contains a vision, however inspiring, which is unsupported by arguments. (Andrew Pyle (ed), Key Philosophers in Conversation, p.44)

He did not elaborate on these remarks, simply adding that "'vision', 'argument', and 'support' can mean many different things". These words certainly can mean many different things, but whatever they mean, it seems that the two kinds of disappointment Putnam spoke of can still be characterized a bit further in a completely general way: Arguments not inspired by some philosophical vision are disappointing because it is not even clear why we should take them seriously in the first place; a philosophical vision not supported by arguments is disappointing because it may very well be nothing but an intellectual fantasy. To mimic Kant: Arguments without a vision are blind; a vision without arguments is empty.

The relation between philosophical visions and arguments is, to some extent, analogous to that between scientific theories and confirmatory experiments. There is, however, an important difference. A scientific theory usually carries implications for how it can be confirmed experimentally, but a philosophical vision does not carry implications for how it can be supported by arguments. If there is a theory (about some kind of natural phenomenon) such that no experiment can be designed, at least in principle, to confirm it, it is doubtful whether it should be considered scientific at all. By contrast, a philosophical vision that is not supported by arguments may not be considered any less philosophical. Another way of putting it is that philosophy is more tolerant of empty talk than science is. This may be, alas, why there is more bad philosophy than bad science.


Living forwards and changing the past

In Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the narrator makes the following arresting remarks about the past and the future:

People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.

These remarks make an interesting contrast with what Kierkegaard famously says about life (in his journal for the year 1843):

It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.

The two passages are at least in tension, if they don't seem outright contradictory. If life "must be lived forwards", how can the future be "an apathetic void of no interest to anyone"? And if we can "change the past", doesn't that mean there is a sense in which life can be lived backwards? Both passages are insightful, and I think there is a way of understanding them so that they are not only compatible but also support each other.

First of all, we all know that the past cannot be changed, not literally. Our understanding of the past, however, can change. The past is important to us because "life must be understood backwards", and we can't help living forwards with a particular understanding of the past. It is the understanding of the past that counts, not just the past in itself. Although the same past can be understood differently, we can't change our understanding of the past at will. But we can change it indirectly, that is, by living forwards in a particular way. This is the sense in which people can "change the past" by being "masters of the future".

But why are living forwards and changing the past related this way? Because the past and the future form a narrative, and this is how we see our lives --- as stories unfolding. Different possible futures would result in different stories and hence different contexts in which the same past could be understood very differently. The past is already, as it were, written, but the future is, we believe, still open. The future in itself may be seen as an "apathetic void", but it is of great interest to us when seen as part of a continuous story.

What we want to create is not a better future (understood independently of the past), but a better life story --- better in the sense that the past can be understood in a way that makes it less likely to "irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it".


Fine-tuning and Omnipotence

The fine-tuning argument is an attempt to show that the universe is designed. The basic idea of the argument is simple: the parameters of physics and the initial conditions of the universe are such that if some of them, such as the cosmological constant and the gravitational constant, were slightly different, the universe would not have existed. There might still be a universe, but a short-lived or unstable one that does not allow life chemistry, and hence no life --- the universe is intentionally fine-tuned for life.

Let us assume that the physics used in the argument is all correct. Let us even assume that there is no other explanation of the apparent fine-tuning of the universe than that the fine-tuning is actual and intentional. That is, let us assume that the universe does have a fine-tuner or designer.* Call the designer D. What attributes should we ascribe to D? It is clear that D has to be extremely intelligent and powerful (designing a whole universe is no small task!), but do we have reason to believe that D is omniscient and omnipotent?

Although D does not have to be omniscient to design the universe, D may be omniscient. We have no reason to think one way or the other as far as the fine-tuning argument is concerned. However, if D is intelligent enough to avoid doing things that are unnecessary, we do have reason to believe that D is not omnipotent. Consider the following argument:

(1) D fine-tunes the universe for life.
(2) If D is omnipotent, D does not need to fine-tune the universe for life.
(3) D is intelligent enough to avoid doing unnecessary things.
(4) Therefore, if D fine-tunes the universe for life, D needs to do it that way. [from (3)]
(5) Therefore, D needs to fine-tune the universe for life. [from (1) and (4)]
(6) Therefore, D is not omnipotent. [from (2) and (5)]

Anyone who accepts (1) and (3) has to accept the conclusion that D is not omnipotent if she also accepts (2). People who employ the fine-tuning argument certainly accept (1), and it is safe to assume that they accept (3) as well. Do they accept (2)? They have to accept it if they accept all of the following claims:

- If D is omnipotent, D is capable of creating life that is not carbon-based.
- If D is omnipotent, D is capable of creating life of some form in a universe that is utterly different from ours (with different parameters of physics and initial conditions).
- If D is omnipotent, D is capable of creating life of some form even in a short-lived and unstable universe.

They have no reason not to accept these claims because none of the consequents of the conditionals describes an ability to do something that is logically or metaphysically impossible.** So they have no reason not to accept (2).

If God is omnipotent, then D is not God. This is presumably disappointing news for those who employ the fine-tuning argument.

 * The fine-tuning argument does not give us any reason to think that there can only be one designer, but for my purposes here it's not necessary to consider the possibility that there is more than one designer.
** Some philosophers argue that 'omnipotence' is an incoherent concept. Here I assume for the sake of argument that the concept is coherent and that the only things an omnipotent being is incapable of doing are those that are logically or metaphysically impossible.