My View Of Philosophy

For 9 years, I taught philosophy in addition to computer science. I sometimes get questions about how I combine the kind of engineering-type research that I'm pursuing in computer science with philosophical interests. On my view of philosophy, the difference is not as big as people tend to think who aren't familiar with both disciplines. So I'll explain a bit about my view.

One way to quickly get at someone's view of philosophy is to ask them whether there can be and has been progress in philosophy. Many people outside philosophy believe that there hasn't been, but I think that there has been tremendous progress in philosophy, especially in the past hundred years. What kind of progress? I'd say that philosophy is about how to think (and a bit about how to live). Philosophy begins when it's not clear how to think about something.

It could be that we have conflicting yet deeply entrenched views, and we don't know how to put them together. For example, it seems to me that the free will debate is like that: on the one hand, we think of ourselves and of others as free agents whose decision now need not depend on what went before. On the other hand, we think of ourselves as subject to psychological and physical laws that determine our actions - that's how we predict what others will do.

Or it could be that we just don't have adequate concepts in place for thinking about a problem. This was the case in Aristotle's physics; the Aristotelians just didn't have Galileo's concept of acceleration. It may be that we don't yet have the right concepts for describing the mind. I believe that we haven't had the right concepts for thinking about justified belief. When we lack the right concepts, we need to invent new ones, and that's something that philosophers do all the time. That's one kind of progress: we have more powerful concepts now than we had a hundred years ago, and for the most part philosophical concepts keep getting clearer and more powerful, often thanks to formal methods.

Progress in philosophy doesn't mean that philosophers reach agreement on the one right way to think about something. This is different from other disciplines, where new ideas don't count as progress until the practitioners agree on them. This difference is one of the main reasons why outsiders don't perceive progress in philosophy; there is usually no such thing as "the philosophical solution to x". (Thomas Kuhn remarks on this difference in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. If you're interested in how academic disciplines work, this is one of the most observant and informative books ever written.) Instead, there are a number of proposed solutions. Still, each of these ways of thinking has become clearer as philosophy has progressed, much clearer than our ordinary "common sense". We know that certain ways of thinking are not adequate. And we understand profound and subtle connections among seemingly disconnected ideas; how your ideas about what exists connect with your understanding of the human mind or with how you think science works, for example.

I think that both philosophy and computer science deal with profound and challenging questions about the nature of information, learning, inference and reasoning. The key difference to my mind is that computer scientists aim to apply their ideas in practical problems, and perhaps as a consequence they work out many details. The philosophical discussion usually stays at a high level and emphasizes the interconnections between various concepts rather than the detailed structure of particular ideas. As I have become more interested in applications, my research has shifted to computer science.