Philosophy and Rational Irrationality
By Bryan Caplan
Now that Robin knows what philosophers think, he likes them more. I recently received a thoughtful email from Ph.D. philosophy student Matthew Skene that makes the opposite case. Here’s the full message, reprinted with permission.
My name is Matt Skene, and
I’m a graduate student in philosophy at Syracuse University, and a
former student of Mike Huemer’s at the University of Colorado, which is
how I got to know about you.
I saw on your blog a couple weeks ago that you were trying to defend dualism in philosophy of mind on the basis of common sense.
I’m actually writing a dissertation doing just this at the moment.
I’m arguing that (1) We should accept common sense philosophy,
(2) Common sense philosophy commits us to interactive substance
dualism, and (3) The arguments against dualism aren’t sufficient to
override the initial justification dualism gets from being an element
of common sense.
I thought you might be interested to know that the part of my defense of (1) that I’m currently working on appeals to your book
The Myth of the Rational Voter. I use your basic reasoning about rational irrationality in situations with low practical costs and apply it to philosophy.
The results are rather disturbing, as I use it for a backdrop for defending the following argument:
Epistemic Rationality: (PER)- It is not epistemically rational to
believe something just because it is interesting, original, or
controversial. (2) Publishability
Fact: (PF)- In order to get regularly published in philosophy, you need
to be able to say things that are interesting, original, and
controversial. (3) Perverse
Incentives: (PI)-The practice of philosophy incentivizes non-rational
motives of belief formation; specifically, it incentivizes believing
things that are interesting, original, and controversial whether or not
they are true. (4) Sad Truth: (ST)- Almost all claims that are interesting, original, and controversial are false. (5) Unfortunate
Conclusion: (UC)- The practice of philosophy encourages philosophers to
believe and to publish things that are false.
It seems that philosophers are actually worse off than the average voter when considering their incentives.
Most things that affect people’s beliefs in politics are simply
irrelevant to the truth, although they do produce a number of false
beliefs about economics.
The things that influence philosophers, though, are typically
positive indications that their beliefs are false, and so their sources
of bias are worse.
Also, there is a greater personal benefit for philosophers to
believe these things, since it makes it much easier to be successful in
What I take from this
argument is that part of the job of a sound philosophical method must
be finding ways to fight these perverse incentives that lead us away
from the truth.
I then argue that common sense philosophy is best suited to do so, and therefore that it should be preferred.
I do this by indicating mechanisms for getting people to listen
to false claims, and showing how the methods of common sense (described
in an earlier chapter) protect against the desire to use these
If you’d be interested in seeing this chapter, or any of the
rest of it, when I’ve completed a draft I’d be happy to send it to you.