Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Gripe

We interrupt your irregularly scheduled discussion of naturalism to complain a bit.

Why can't philosophers learn how to use examples? When I'm teaching my physics classes, I can hardly say five sentences without feeling the need to throw in an example to illustrate whatever it is I'm talking about. There's nothing like a good, clear example to show what the abstract terms mean and how they are used in practice. But philosophers are capable of going on and on for hundreds of pages of the most abstract stuff without a single example.

I noticed this while reading about free will. Practically the only example I ran across was Austin's putt. (Certainly the most over-analysed event in sporting history. That's another thing about philosophers: once they get hold of an example they worry it to death.)

In the two books on physicalism that I'm reading it's just as bad. Melnyk is the better of the two: he occasionally describes a useful example. I'll report on one or two of these in upcoming posts.

But Poland goes on about "function" and "causality" and "instantiation" and "tokens" and so forth, never pausing to give an illustration of what these terms mean in real life. And when he does give an "example," it's so abstract as to be nearly useless. For instance, in describing how the same sort of explanation is used for natural regularities as for exceptions to those regularities, Poland gives the following "example". (And no, I am not making this up. It's on p. 220.)

For example, if an exception to a causal regularity is a case in which the antecedent, but not the consequent, attribute is instantiated, some other attribute being instantiated instead, then such an exception is explained via an account which clarifies the relations between the attribute(s) realizing the antecedent non-physical attribute and the attribute(s) realizing the non-physical attribute that replaced the expected consequent non-physical attribute and which explains how those relations between the physically-based attributes realize the relation between the two actually occurring non-physical attributes.

Thank you so much, Professor Poland.

We now return to your irregularly scheduled discussion.

1 comment:

  1. That was a great one from Poland. I think it also has to do with which area in philosophy you're talking about -- for instance philosophy of mind has heaps of examples (and thought experiments). And yet you'd think free will should have lots of colourful ones available too...