Martin’s Rules For Philosophy.

The most important thing in philosophy is to be able to distinguish between logically supported claims, and claims that are not logically supported. Philosophy can be seen as a search for truth, and a claim can only be rightly considered true if it is supported by a logically rock-solid argument. Claims that are not supported by solid arguments can be put forward as possibilities, but we have no reason to take them as truths. We can discuss them, explore them and even suppose them to see what happens, but unless and until they are supported by good arguments, we should not ever say they are true.

There are, unfortunately, a large number of bad arguments current in philosophy. By this I mean that a lot of people who talk about philosophy seem to make a lot of very elementary logical mistakes. It’s not just students who do this. Part-time professors, full-time professors, tenured professors, distinguished professors and even world-famous professors sometimes promote doctrines supported by reasoning that, to me at least, does not make logical sense.

The purpose of this chapter is to set out some very elementary rules that I will try to illustrate over the course of this book, and which I hope you will apply in your future study of philosophy. I don’t claim to have invented or discovered any of these rules. Most of them are things I learned from other philosophy teachers, and the rest are things that emerged from looking closely at the ways some particular historical arguments go wrong. As with everything else in this book, these rules will be open to question, and the essay topics at the end of the book will include opportunity to criticize and perhaps even refute one or more of these rules.

The rules I will describe below are primarily concerned with what kinds of things can count as reasons to believe things. In my view, philosophy the way philosophy works is that one person makes a claim that and supports that claim with reasons. She says something like “X is true because Y,”where “X” is the thing she thinks we should believe and “Y” is the reason she thinks we should believe it. The basic rule of philosophy is that these reasons should be strictly logical. Unfortunately, not everybody follows this rule, and there are a variety of more-or-less related ways of not being logical. The following rules do not cover all the bad ways of arguing, but they do cover some of the more common and more clearly wrong ways of doing philosophy.

On the other hand, you don’t have to understand everything all at once. Make sure you completely understand the rules that seem easiest to you, and then try to extend that understanding to one that you almost understand, and so on. I’ve tried to arrange the rules in order of ascending difficulty, so if you come across a rule that doesn’t seem to make sense, stop and try to figure it out before you move on. It might help you understand some of the later rules if you think about the idea that of the rules after Rule 1. are actually just special cases or specific applications of Rule 1. If you still have trouble, you can always email me or take the issue to the facebook group.

Martin’s Rules:

1. The Rule of Argument If you are going to actually do philosophy, you should only ever regard a claim as proven true if there clearly is a logically compelling argument for it, you should only ever regard a claim as proven false if there clearly is a logically compelling argument against it, and if there are no compelling arguments either way, you should not regard the claim as either true or false. If a writer advances a claim without giving an argument for that claim, you should never accept that claim as true. Nothing can be simply be assumed. We can always ask “how do you know this?” and should reject any claim that is supported by “I just do.” Nothing should ever be accepted as proven without a logically compelling argument. If there is no compelling argument for a claim, then that claim can be dismissed as unproven, and it’s perfectly all right to regard it as false.

2. The Rule of Reading When you are studying a text to prepare for lecture, or reading up on a topic to get ready to write about it, you should read every word in whatever text you’re reading. Don’t skip over the parts you don’t understand. For instance, students sometimes ignore the word “psychological” in the term “psychological egoism,” and write as if “psychological egoism,” meant the same thing as “egoism.”  Students who don’t take the trouble to find out the difference between “psychological egoism” and “egoism” will never succeed in understanding those topics. Don’t ignore the words you have trouble with. They are usually the most important words, so you should take the time to figure out what is actually meant by these words. Read every word. If you see a word you don’t know, or an old word used in a different way, look the word up and think about what it might mean in this context. If there’s something you still don’t understand, ask your instructor to explain it. Don’t ignore anything. Your ignorance could be fatal. This rule is also violated by people who base their arguments on what they think a write is thinking while they ignore what he's actually saying. Never trust anyone who purports to tell you what someone else thinks. There's no such thing as magic, no-one can read minds, and people who purport to read other people's minds are just fooling themselves.

3. The Rule of Feelings How you feel about an idea has nothing to do with whether it is true or false. An idea can strike you as the most wonderful thing ever, and still be completely false, Or an idea can be horrible, depressing or even unthinkable to you, and still unfortunately be absolutely and undeniably true. This of course applies to any kinds of feelings you might have about a claim. If you feel that a claim is “obviously” true, or “obviously” false, your feeling of obviousness about the claim has no logical weight. Many claims that are felt to be obviously true are in fact completely false, and vice versa. If you have a “sense” or an “intuition” that something exists, that feeling carries no logical weight. You feeling that something is true is not the same as you possessing any kind of rational reason to believe that thing, and philosophy only works when it is based on rational reasons.

4. The Rule of Belief Similarly, someone choosing to believe a particular thing has nothing to do with whether it is true or false. People are entitled to believe anything they want, but belief, by itself, is not a reason to believe. A person can passionately, even fanatically believe a certain thing and still be completely wrong. A person can be completely unable to accept even the slightest doubt about his belief, and still be absolutely wrong about that belief. The belief rule says that belief in a proposition does not matter for the truth or falsity of that belief. If you, or anyone else, profess a firm and unwavering belief in some claim, that does not give anyone else the slightest actual reason to believe in that claim. You are entitled to believe anything you want. You are allowed to take anything you like on faith. But your faith in any belief, no matter how firm, does not even begin to give anyone the slightest reason to think that that belief is true.

5. The Rule of Herds Don’t follow the herd. Sometimes people say things like “you should do things this way because everyone does it this way” or “this way of thinking is intellectually respectable because a lot of people in the academy think it is.” Just as it’s possible for one person to be wrong, it’s also possible for a bunch of people to be wrong and even for everyone to be wrong. Important and powerful people are often wrong. As you study philosophy, you will see several instances of times when everyone except one person did things, or believed a certain way, and the single nonconformist turned out to be completely right where everyone else was completely wrong. Anyone who tells you should follow a herd, or even the herd is wrong.

6. The Rule of Comprehension When I first started studying philosophy, I noticed that  in the books I had to read there were arguments that didn’t make sense to me. The writer would write as though what he said proved something, but I could not make out any way that what he said could prove anything, but I assumed that, because the argument was in a philosophy book, it was at least a logically respectable argument. I was wrong. These were actually all terrible arguments, and were just in the book because the writer thought he had to represent both sides of an issue, even if the one side was idiotic. The lesson here is that you should never accept (or reject) a claim or argument merely because you cannot understand it, or cannot see how it is supposed to work. Sometimes, things are incomprehensible simply because they are very, very complicated. String theory, for instance, is quite beyond my understanding, but physicists apparently understand it well enough to have successfully predicted something called the “Higgs boson,” which I also do not understand. And successful predictions are the main reason I accept the findings of theoretical physics. Not only do physicists seem to understand each other, they also produce experimental results that demonstrate that they must know something. Philosophy, however, is not like physics. Philosophers can never support their theories by conducting experiments to produce, or not produce, visible results. All we have is logic. The Rule of for accepting a new idea in philosophy should be that a new idea may only be accepted if it is supported by an argument that is clearly a logically compelling argument. It’s okay to admit that you don’t understand something, but if the only thing a claim has going for it is an argument that you don’t understand, then, as far as you are concerned, that claim has no argument, and you should not accept the claim. An argument that noone understands proves nothing.

7. The Rule of Charity On the other hand, we also should hesitate to say that a view is wrong when it is possible that we have misinterpreted. that view. The Principle of Charity is a widely accepted rule in philosophy which says that when you have two or more different ways of interpreting a particular statement or doctrine, you should pick the most logically sensible interpretation.To put it simply, we should never interpret someone as saying something stupid when we can just as easily interpret them as saying something clever. Charity is a way of avoiding what is called the Straw Man fallacy. I would commit Straw Man if I took an argument you had made, and changed your argument so that it was stupid in some way, and then pretended that this meant that your original argument was stupid. Just as we would not like to be uncharitably misinterpreted by others, we should do our best not to uncharitably misinterpret what other people say.

8. The Rule of Sympathy While I’m not saying that we should always treat the ideas and arguments of others with the utmost respect, I do think it’s a good idea to try to be as respectful and sympathetic of other people’s ideas and arguments as we can manage to be under the circumstances, if only to make especially sure that we don’t slip into breaking the charity rule. For instance, suppose you get overhear someone defending some thoroughly discredited theory, such as phrenology. The sympathy rule says you should not automatically dismiss or disparage this person’s beliefs. You don’t have to pay attention to their views, but if you do engage them, you should be respectful. More importantly, since phrenology is a “underdog” in the sense that it is widely disbelieved by people who understand physiology and psychology, we have something of duty to make sure that the doctrine is fairly treated. I do make one exception to this rule, if someone sneers at your reasoning or otherwise defames your opinions or the opinions of innocent others, you don’t owe that person any sympathy, and can ignore them, or reply any way you like.

9. The Rule of Insults Generally speaking, people resort to insult when they have no logic. If someone describes someone else’s view as “naive,” or refers to someone else’s arguments as “bluster,” this tends to indicate that they cannot think of any logical arguments against that view, or that they cannot find anything logically wrong with arguments for that view. If someone meets criticism by saying that his critics do not understand his argument, that strongly suggest that he cannot effectively answer the criticism. If I disparage your beliefs or your reasoning, the mere fact that I insult you does not, by itself, mean that I am wrong, but it is a red flag, and a rational observer will ignore the insults and look to see if I have any actual arguments against you. If it turns out that the only opposition I make against your view is that I can think up ways to insult you, then I will have clearly failed to prove anything, and made a fool of myself to boot. Insults, of whatever kind, are always things to ignore in philosophy.

10. The Rule of Evidence If someone is claiming that a certain object, force or process really exists, then he is making a claim about the nature of the universe we believe exists around us. Such claims require evidence, and we are allowed to dismiss them if they are not supported by evidence. While purely logical claims, such as the Pythagorean Theorem or DeMorgan’s Law can be proven or disproved by pure logic, Controversial claims about the way existence works or what things exist can only be accepted if they are supported by evidence. If someone wants to claim that X causes Y, he must provide evidence that X exists, evidence that Y exists, and most especially evidence that X and Y are correlated in such a way as to prove X causes Y. If there's no evidence, it doesn't exist. I once found myself reading a book that made a series of startling and controversial claims without providing any evidence whatsoever. As I kept reading, I got the impression that the writer’s whole strategy was to as much as possible avoid talking about evidence, and indeed to work very hard to pretend that evidence did not matter at all. (I did not enjoy this book.) We should always be suspicious of people who want us to believe in things that are not supported by evidence. Nothing can be simply be assumed. We should always ask “how do you know this?” and should reject any claim that is supported by “I just do.” If someone claims that ghosts exist, or that elves cause stroke, or that welfare causes dependency, it is up to him to provide evidence to this effect. If his claim is the kind of thing that would produce evidence if it were true, a lack of such evidence would tend to prove that his claim is false. And if a claim turns out to be contradicted by all the available evidence, that would give us a very good reason to think that the claim is false.

11. The Rule of Repetition Saying the same thing in different words is not the same as providing a reason to believe that thing. For example, the following is a terrible argument because its "premise" is just its conclusion in different words: "All people are fundamentally motivated by a desire to bring happiness to others, therefore ir follows that everyone just wants to make others happy." Again, repeating a conclusion in different words is not the same as giving an argument for that conclusion. To give a slightly more difficult example, people who believe in the doctrine of psychological egoism (the doctrine that people only ever act in their own self-interest) often “argue” for it by saying things like “psychological egoism is true because people only ever act in their own self-interest,” or “we know people only ever act in their own self-interest because people never act for any reason other than self interest.” This doesn’t work because “psychological egoism” is just a name for the idea that people only ever act in their own self-interest, and “people never act for any reason other than self interest” is just another way of saying “people only ever act in their own self-interest,” so the speaker is really saying “people only ever act in their own self-interest because people only ever act in their own self-interest,” which cannot ever prove anything. So if your “reason” for believing something is just that thing stated in different words, you don’t have any reason to believe it.

12. The Rule of Words Generally speaking, different words mean different things. A student of mine once wrote something like “personal identity does not rely on physical continuity because people who physically resemble each other are not always the same person.” A moment’s thought will reveal that the words “continuity” and “resemble” are different and unrelated words, that “continuity” and “resemblance” are two very different things, and so this sentence makes no sense whatsoever. More problems can arise whenever someone actually uses two different words to mean the same thing. If someone uses the word “necessity” to mean determinism, and the word “randomness” to mean indeterminism, he runs a terrible risk of having the connotations of these words bleed over into people’s understandings of determinism and indeterminsm, and an equally bad risk confusing the real implications of determinism and lack of determinism.

13. The Definition Rule You can’t change the meanings of terms in the middle of arguments. I read an article once in which the writer claimed that Norman Lear was wrong in his claims about what Lear called the “religious right.” (Lear basically used the term to refer to extremely politically active religious conservatives) The attack on Lear argument was based on the writer’s opinion  that the term “religious right” could also be used to refer to other religiously conservative people (in particular, those who were not politically active), and that therefore, because Lear’s claims about the people he was talking about didn’t apply to the people he wasn’t talking about, Lear must be wrong about the people he was talking about. To give another example, suppose Mutt says that tweaking (methamphetamine use) always tends to cause brain damage, and Jeff says Mutt is wrong because we could use the word “tweaking” to also include use of other stimulants such as Ampakine, which don’t have the same side effects, and that therefore tweaking doesn’t always tend to cause brain damage. Finally, people who attempt to support the doctrine of psychological egoism sometimes start out using the term “self-interest” in it’s usual sense of gaining money, material goods, influence or power, but then later change that definition to include a supposed feeling of satisfaction at having done something that had no prospect of achieving money, material goods, influence or power.

14. The Rule of Experience This rule just tells us not to confuse our experiences with the beliefs we hold to explain those experiences. If you can find constellation Orion in the night sky, look up at the top left glowing dot, which is Orion’s right shoulder in astrological imagery. That dot is, which will look slightly red or pink to you, is called “Betelgeuse.” Take a moment to think about what is happening to you. You are in the dark, looking up, and seeing a little glowing red dot in a black field studded with other little glowing dots. You are engulfed in superheated gas. You are not incinerated, or even blinded by an enormous torrent of photons. You are not seeing a sphere of gas, you are seeing a tiny little slightly red dot in the dark sky. That is your experience, and that experience is called “seeing Betelgeuse.” There are many possible theories that could be accepted to explain this experience. One theory is that the Earth is surrounded by enormous concentric hollow spheres made of perfectly transparent crystal, and Betelgeuse is a relatively small glowing red object embedded in the outermost sphere. Another theory might be that Betelgeuse is a reddish brown ball of rock, like planet Mars, that just happens to move around the sky in formation with the other stars of Orion. A third theory is that the little red dot we call “Betelgeuse” is caused by a giant ball of superhot gas, big enough to contain the orbits of all the solar planets out to Jupiter, which is moving at incredible speed away from the stars in Orion’s belt. Modern science accepts the third of these theories, but it would be wrong for you to say, on that dark night, that you see a big ball of superhot gas moving away from Orion’s belt. You don’t see a giant ball, you don’t feel the heat, you don’t see the gas, and you don’t see the movement. You see a little red dot in the dark sky, and the other stuff is all theory deployed to explain that experience.

15. The Rule of Concepts The way we think about things is not necessarily the way those things are. Properties of concepts are not necessarily properties of objects. The concept rule tells us not to confuse properties of things as we think about them with the features of things as we experience them. We can distinguish between the actual _physical_ properties of something we actually experience in the world, and a _concept_ that someone might have of that thing. Consider cats for instance. Some people think of cats as having a sense of dignity, or as being scornful, or disapproving of human activities, or as having contempt for dogs, and so on. Now, from this, it follows that there are two ways to think about cats. We could start with a particular _concept_ we have about cats, and draw inferences from that to make predictions about future cat behavior, or we could observe actual cats and make note of what they actually do, and use that real-world observation to make predictions about future cat behavior. The rule of concepts basically says that how you _conceive_ of something doesn't really tell you how it really _is_. To know how something really is, you have to actually observe what it does and what it's actual properties are. (There are a couple of philosophers we will study later who, in my opinion, violate this rule.) Similarly, there is a very common belief that the passage of time is an illusion. The “time is an illusion” idea holds that since physical theory sees all points in time as the same, there is no actual difference between the point in time when you started reading this paragraph and the time you read this word. On this theory, the time that passed while a teacup was falling and breaking is illusory, and one can step back to the time before it broke and prevent it falling off the table. The reasoning here seems to be that since we conceive of time as having no irreversibly moving present, that present does not actually exist. Another application of this rule is to point out that the fact that something is logically possible (or "conceivable") has no bearing on the question of whether or not it is physically possible. (We can conceive of naturally occuring cubical gas giant planets, but they cannot possibly exist). The concept rule says that the fact that we think a certain way about something doesn’t mean that that thing really is that way. And, of course, if the evidence actually contradicts the concept, it is the concept that must be given up, and not the evidence.

16. The Rule of Names It’s important to remember that names are just names. People discover or invent new things, and those new things need names so we can talk about them. There’s no rule for how to name things, and the person who discovers or invents something usually gets to name it however she wants. This means that you cannot infer anything about a thing or concept merely from the name chosen to represent it. In order to understand what is meant by a particular name, you must carefully study the definitions and explanations given by the people who make claims involving that term. Thinking about what you would have meant if you had come up with the term is a very bad idea, and can lead to stupidities such as thinking that the use of the term “consumer culture” somehow implies that one also believes in an opposing “producer culture,” or that holding an international philosophy conference somehow commits the organizers to believing in such a thing as a “national philosophy.” (The term “consumer culture” actually refers to social attitudes that valorize consumption where previous generations tended more to see status in terms of possessions. An international philosophy conference is just one that invites participants from more than one country.) Don’t waste time analyzing names. Do the hard work to figure out the concepts particular thinkers are actually trying to convey by that particular name.

17. The Straw Man Rule When you talk about what someone says, talk about what they actually say, not about something else that merely sounds vaguely like what they said. When you decide to analyze someone else’s argument, the first thing to do is make absolutely sure that you clearly and completely understand exactly what they are actually saying. The only time you can possibly have even the remotest chance of refuting any doctrine is when you clearly and completely understand that doctrine and clearly and completely understand the arguments for that doctrine. If you haven’t got that, you haven’t got anything. It’s a sad fact that one of the most common ways people go wrong in philosophy is by misrepresenting the arguments of their opponents. (This is usually not intentional, but it is never acceptable.) When we criticize other people’s arguments, we don’t get to change those arguments and we don’t get to add things to those arguments. If I say I’m criticizing what you said, the argument I criticize must be the argument you actually gave.

18. The Rule of Contradictions If someone mounts an extended argument in which a rule or factual claim made in one part of the argument is contradicted by a rule or factual claim made in another part of that argument, the whole argument fails completely. Say you read a novel in which early in the book everyone says vampires can't ever be out in daylight. but later in the book a vampire character is walking about in daylight with no trouble and no explanation. That's a contradiction, but it doesn't matter because it's fiction. As long as you enjoy the book, contradictions don't have to matter. But now think of a book that's supposed to _prove_ something. Suppose someone is trying to prove that elves and fairies exist and, at the beginning of the book he says it's logically impossible for magic to exist, but later in the book he says elves and fairies are magical. He's contradicted himself, and this time it has to matter because his argument requires that magic can't exist, and that magic does exist. Those two things can't both be true, so his argument cannot possibly work. Similarly, if an arguer says that everything must have a cause, and then later in the same argument asserts that his imaginary friend doesn’t have to have a cause, then he has contradicted himself, and his argument fails. (And if he changes his argument to read “absolutely everything must have a cause except Mr. Winky,” he has to give a compelling reason why Mr. Winky is so special.)

19. The Rule of Universality It is an important and useful fact about logic that the rules of logic are universal. There is no such thing as a rule of logic that is valid in one area where it could be applied, and invalid in another area where it could be applied equally well. If someone says that “if X is true, then Y must also be true,” we are entitled to ask “by what rule of logic does X imply Y?” All arguments are based on assumptions about underlying rules of logic. If an arguer relies on a “rule” that isn’t really a rule of logic, then his argument will fail. A rule that works in one context will work in all contexts. If there is a single context in which that rule produces a demonstrably false result, then it isn’t universal, and it is therefore not really a rule of logic. Similarly, nobody gets to set special standards against other people. You can’t say “X doesn’t explain Y” when X meets the same standards as other explanations that are commonly accepted. If someone wants to set a standard for explanations that would rule out all or most of the explanations that are commonly used in science, or all or most of the explanations that are used elswhere in philosophy, he also need to accept that he is arguing that virtually nothing is true. If he doesn't accept that, we don't need to use his standards.

20. The Rule of Explanation If an argument is based on an explanation, that "explanation" must actually explain the thing it purports to explain. Science accepts the atomic theory, with 118 or more elements, and not the old four elements (earth, air, fire and water) theory because the atomic theory allows us to explain and predict the chemical and physical properties of various substances, whereas the earth-air-fire-water doesn't let us explain or predict anything. Similarly the idea that global radio interference is caused by sunspot activity actually explains the interference because it appeals to the known electrical properties of the sun and of electromagnetic radiation, while the idea that global radio interference is caused by neon sparkly radio twinkle static fairies doesn't tell us how the fairies make the interference nor does it allow us to predict the next time it will happen.

21. The Rule of Assumptions The rule for assumptions is that if you can make an assumption about your premises, everyone else can make similar assumptions. There are people who say that a god, such as Zeus, Odin or Fnorbert must exist to explain the existence of the universe because, they say, only the existence of a universe-making entity, such as whatever god they happen to favor, can explain the existence of the universe. When asked how Zeus explains the universe, they reply that we assume (or “posit”) that Zeus has the power to create universes. But if we can assume that Zeus has this power, we can assume that anything has that power. We can assume that an old shoe, or a random dog, or my coffee cup, or the universe itself, or a previous universe has universe-creating power. Thus the rule that allows Zeus to be an explanation for the universe also means that Zeus cannot possibly be the only explanation for the universe, and the argument defeats itself.

22. The Rule of Magic There is, unfortunately, no such thing as magic. Sometimes, "philosophers" try to rescue failed doctrines by appeal to impossible processes that in effect are equivalent to magic. Descartes famously defined "mind" and "body" in such a way that it was impossible for (immaterial) mind, as he defined it, to interact with (material) body, as he defined it. For most people, this fact was enough to prove that mind-body dualism is completely false. Some, however, decided that being logically impossible was not enough to prove the doctrine false, because, they said, it was still possible for mind and body to interact through some "more etherial causality." A moment's reflection, however, will reveal that the term "etherial causality" has no meaning different from "magic." The proponants of etherial causality do not describe how etherial causality is supposed to work, they merely allude to it as an undefined alternative to regular causality. Nor do they give any evidence for its existance as a form of causality. If someone wants to argue that A causes B, he must prove that both A and B exist, and that they are correlated in such a way as to show that A does indeed cause B. Believers in etherial causality have not shown that immaterial "mind," as they define it exists at all, let alone that it is correlated with anything. This is why it is often a good idea to ask whether the speaker can give an uncontroversial example of the thing he is talking about. If the speaker cannot give a clear and provable example of etherial causality operating in another, uncontroversial context, then "etherial causality" is useless to him in the controversial context. Vague, unoperational terms do not count. If a speaker cannot

Some of these rules are just obvious things that everyone should know. Others are rules I came up with after realizing that some philosophers were making egregious logical mistakes without ever being properly called on it. You should then be aware that I’m going to use some of these rules later against other people’s doctrines and arguments. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that I am giving these rules now in order to set-up criticisms of arguments I don’t like later in the book. And, of course, I might be wrong about some of those arguments. Thus you may want to think about re-evaluating any one of these rules when I try to apply it to a real live argument about a real live doctrine. It may be that the rule seemed perfectly reasonable when I described it in the abstract, but seeing one of these rules in the context of exploring a particular doctrine about a particular topic may give you new insight into the nature of logic that perhaps might give you a logical reason to reject the rule after all.

This Site is Proudly Hosted By:
WEBster Computing Services