Thursday, April 14, 2005

What Accounts for Progress?

At the end of Reasons and Persons Derek Parfit makes some very poignant comments about the development of moral philosophy. (I’m not sure why I keep talking about this book I haven’t read it in years and don’t even work on Ethics. Indeed, I lent my last copy to my ex-girlfriend who lost it promptly after deciding not to read it.). He claims, though, that owing to the domination of ethical thought by religion there has been little opportunity for ethical theory to advance. Freed from this constraint there has been a real rise in our understanding of the ethical predicament of contemporary times. Indeed with some hard-headed thinking and a few rhetorical flourishes, a new breed of ethical philosophers could change the face of Western ethical thought. (In fact Parfit suggests, I seem to recall, that the East is already ahead of us in its understanding of personal non-identity.)

Metaphysics and epistemology has bloomed as much as moral philosophy has in the twentieth century--if not more!, but not because of the decline of religious influence. Indeed it’s widely acknowledged that since Descartes the place of Theistic beliefs in M&E has been relatively minor. So what explains the twentieth century blooming of metaphysics and epistemology (broadly conceived to include the philosophy of language)? You might think I'm wrong here but, I challenge anyone to argue that M&E didn't bloom in the second half of the 20th century: just think about the sophistication of current debates on such topics as causation, knowledge, possibilia, logical form, temporal parts, laws etc.

I think the simple claim is answer that there are more good philosophers than ever, and that this applies to moral philosophy also. The truth is that the problems are just really tough and require a lot of great minds not just a few. Of course, the social support structure of the university, communication about ideas also helps, but I think the big improvement isn’t the decline of religious thinking but just the increase in numbers. If we can multiply even further, perhaps even the problem of free will or the surprise exam will be mere curiosity pieces.

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