Is philosophy a sport played with words?

This is the second in a series of posts on philosophy.

Dining last year with members of a philosophy salon in Manhattan, I met an eminent philosopher, whom I’ll call Harry. He could not have been nicer. When I said I was only a journalist, Harry smiled warmly and said anyone interested in philosophy is a philosopher.

After dinner, we retired to the salon leader’s apartment to talk about a paper, and Harry underwent a transformation. When I ventured an opinion, he sternly rebuked me for my foolishness. I didn’t feel bad, because he treated his fellow philosophers just as harshly, challenging their reasoning and rhetoric. Like the milquetoast who turns into Mad Max when he gets behind a wheel, the nice guy had become a warrior.

Such behavior is common among philosophers. I’m often struck, watching philosophers interact, by their aggression. Scientists can be rough, but less so, on average, than philosophers. Why is that? Because philosophical clashes, unlike scientific ones, cannot be resolved by appeals to data; they are battles of wits.

In “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?,” David Chalmers notes that science employs “the observational/experimental method,” which has “the power to compel agreement on the answers to big questions.” In contrast, philosophy relies on “the method of argument,” which does not compel agreement.

Chalmers acknowledges that millennia of philosophical debate have not yielded convergence on big questions. So why do philosophers keep bickering if they can’t arrive at a resolution? Perhaps philosophy has devolved into mere competition, in which victors are rewarded with fame and glory–more specifically, grants, tenure, book contracts, invitations to Davos and appearances on Charlie Rose.

If philosophy is a sport played with words, fretting over its lack of progress is a category error, like arguing over whether hockey progress. Modern hockey players are no doubt stronger, faster, better-trained on average than their predecessors. But does that mean hockey is better than it used to be? It’s an ill-posed question, because in sports what matters is winning–and, for professionals, entertaining spectators.

Watching philosophers jabbing and parrying, I’m reminded of a Darwinian hypothesis called argumentative theory. It holds that our reasoning skills evolved primarily not to produce truth but to win arguments. If you are talented at defending your views and demolishing others’, you boost your social status and hence what biologists call reproductive opportunities.

But like most Darwinian explanations for human behavior, argumentative theory is far too reductive. Yes, philosophers, especially males, are status-seeking primates. Yes, some philosophers seem to care more about winning than wisdom. But for most philosophy is not merely a means to the end of success. There are easier paths to fame and glory.

Moreover, there is a crucial difference between sports and philosophy: the latter lacks fixed rules. What Paul Feyerabend said of science—“Anything goes”—is far truer of philosophy. Clever philosophers ruthlessly bend or break rules or invent new ones to gain an advantage. This lawlessness helps to explain why philosophy rarely produces clear-cut victories and losses.

That brings us back to the question: If philosophy cannot yield permanent truth, what is or should be its end? In what way does philosophy still matter? Sports suggest a possible answer. Most athletes have goals beyond winning. They seek self-improvement, just as Socrates and Lao Tzu did. Ethics is the branch of philosophy that aims to make us better people. The goal is not the True, what is, but the Good, what should be. In my next column, I’ll consider philosophy’s role as a guide to morality.

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings, which is part of the College of Arts & Letters. This column is adapted from one originally published on his ScientificAmerican.com blog, “Cross-check.”