What is philosophy’s point, if it can’t discover truth?

I’ve been hobnobbing with philosophers more than usual lately. Over the last 18 months, I’ve attended several conferences with philosophical themes, eavesdropped on graduate seminars, interviewed prominent philosophers and joined a philosophy salon in New York City.

These interactions have me brooding, once again, over the old philosophical conundrum: What is philosophy? What is its purpose? Its point? The traditional answer is that philosophy seeks truth. But several prominent scientists, notably Stephen Hawking, have contended that philosophy has no point, because science, a far more competent truth-seeking method, has rendered it obsolete.

But can something pleasurable be pointless? I enjoy philosophy when it’s well done–hell, even sometimes when it’s not, for the same reason I sometimes enjoy lousy films. Figuring out what makes bad philosophy bad can help you understand what makes good philosophy good.

So what makes good philosophy good? What makes it valuable? We wrestled with these questions last year in my philosophy salon when we considered a fascinating paper by David Chalmers, “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?”

Chalmers is almost comically passive-aggressive in the paper, veering between defiance and doubt. He opens by insisting that “obviously” philosophy achieves some progress, but the rest of his paper undercuts that modest assertion.

He concedes that whereas scientists do converge on certain answers, “there has not been large collective convergence to the truth on the big questions of philosophy.” A survey of philosophers carried out by Chalmers and a colleague revealed divisions on big questions: What is the relationship between mind and body? How do we know about the external world? Does God exist? Do we have free will?

Philosophers’ attempts to answer such questions, Chalmers remarks, “typically lead not to agreement but to sophisticated disagreement.” That is, progress consists less in defending truth claims than in casting doubt on them. Chalmers calls this “negative progress.”

Chalmers suggests that philosophers’ methods keep improving, and that these refinements constitute progress of a kind. But if improved methods of argumentation still aren’t yielding truth, do they really count as progress? That’s like equating scientific progress with advances in telescopes and microscopes, regardless of whether these instruments discover viruses or pulsars. If philosophers can’t reach agreement on anything, why keep arguing?

Chalmers resists the claim—advanced by Colin McGinn, among others–that philosophy’s major problems, notably the mind-body problem, are intractable. Philosophers, Chalmers insists, must keep “doing our best to come up with those new insights, methods and concepts that might finally lead us to answering the questions.”

This is less a reasoned position than an expression of faith. Chalmers resembles an officer exhorting his weary troops to keep charging forward, when even he suspects the battle is unwinnable.

After mulling over Chalmers’s paper and listening to professionals argue about it, I reached several conclusions: 1. Philosophers aren’t necessarily the best judges of what they do. 2. Philosophers could use advice from a friendly outsider. (“With friends like this jerk…,” some philosophers will surely think.) 3. Philosophers should consider the possibility that discovering truth is not their strength and focus on other goals.

In subsequent columns, I’ll spell out ways in which philosophy—even if it can’t yield insights into reality as deep and durable as natural selection, the second law of thermodynamics and quantum mechanics–can make itself useful. It can serve as an art form, moral guide, spiritual path or even, as I will argue in my next column, a competitive sport.

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