Fallacies Of Philosophy

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Most philosophy has to be bullshit.

Simply because of the contradictions within the vast corpus of philosophy. Unlike science, which has good systems for discouraging the bad and converging on the good, philosophy continues to promote millennia-old lies and errors. And there is no shortage of philosophers lamenting this fact about their practice:

"[...] it takes a philosopher to catch a philosopher." John Dewey, "Why Study Philosophy?" 1893

"Philosophy, take it by and large, has in fact been simply the anthropocentrism of the educated and intelligent, as religion is the anthropocentrism of the others." David Stove

Philosophers frequently rely on illogic.

The most famous is David Hume's identification of the "is-ought problem". Philosophers routinely start with a statement of what "is", but then somehow illogically leap to what "ought". For a large list of 40 problematic examples, see "What is Wrong with Our Thoughts? A Neo-Positivist Credo".

Assumptions that do not match reality.

Philosophy that attempts to address reality needs realistic assumptions. But there is a trade-off: the more general an assumption (and thus useful for reasoning), the less it conforms to reality. For example, if I say the sky is blue, most people would agree. But is it blue at night? On a cloudy day? When it is filled with dust or smoke? In space? No. And these exceptions are important: maybe more important than the original assumption.

Often these assumptions are disguised as "apriori knowledge". Belief in a priori knowledge is touchingly naive. It is a philosophical superstition, just as souls are.

Science has a superior approach, modeling. You don't "believe" in models. You accept or reject them based on whether they are accurate enough to beat out other models. Certainty is hardly an objective of science. Science is heuristic, not certain. And science documents where its assumptions and models fail.

See Existential Comics 259: A Dialogue on Freedom for an example from Robert Nozick.


Moral philosophy is Calvinball. Rules are made up as you go. Assumptions are added as needed to get the desired results. Every conclusion can be reversed by the addition of a sufficiently potent assumption. The fancy name for this is defeasible argument. The result is that moral philosophy is a post-hoc intellectual excuse for previously chosen positions. It can also serve as a quick introduction of where selected assumptions can lead, with the caveat that with minor tweaks the entirely opposite results can hold.


The fallacy of treating an abstraction as if it were a real thing. Ideas such as "Inviolable Private Sphere of Rights" abound: indeed innumerable non-legal (moral) ideas of rights undergo reification.

Naive Folk Models

Many philosophical conundrums arise because of naive folk models which we know are not true. Ideas such as objects and identity are convenient labels that for some purposes suffice but are reifications. Boundaries cannot be clearly defined and time changes everything. I am not the same as I was a minute ago: it is merely a convenient folk model to treat me so. See A Is A for some examples.

Incomplete Statements

Much philosophy is rooted in incomplete statements. For example, "Man was meant to live free." (Foundation for Economic Education calls this "the freedom philosophy.") But meant BY WHOM? Such a statement is nonsensical because it is lacking a necessary subject or object: it properly should be written "X meant man to live free", where X is "nature" or "god" or whatever reification (fiction) is needed for the argument. It's funny that with the libertarian emphasis on primacy of values of individuals, which they use to rebut claims about social values that some libertarians resort to such evasive claims. It's obvious that most individuals hold different values: "I should live free, everybody else should be regulated for my benefit." And free of what?

Almost all uses by libertarians of "rights", "desert", "freedom", "ought", "justified" and other important philosophical terms suffer from this problem.

Incomplete statements are generally read as implying a universal, but they are usually ambiguous.

Philosophers are very poor at second-best solutions.

In economics, it is often recognized that best solutions to problems are impractical (such as placing everything into property-based markets.) So instead, there are second-best solutions which are practical but are also end-runs around the weaknesses of assumptions (such as social provision of defense, infrastructure and other public goods.) Too much philosophy attempts to cram all problems into the procrustean beds of best solutions.

Once you understand that second-best solutions are all we can have, the question is how many such solutions are there. There might well not be just one second-best solution; there might be many. For example, there are many alternative economic solutions besides property-based markets such as social production, self-provision, NGOs, etc. There can be an ecology of such solutions based on multiple optima.

Philosophers generally don't measure.

They are usually prescientific. David Hume wrote:

[...] Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
David Hume, "Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding", 12, "Of the Academical or Sceptical Philosophy" p. 176.

When confronted with real-world problems that could have multiple causes, logical verbal models are insufficient. You MUST introduce measurement and mathematics into your models if you want to have any hope of valid answers. Logical verbal models are sufficient to specify possible chains (or networks) of causation, but telling which are significant is a quantitative problem that requires measurement. See: The Parable Of The Ship.

Economics has a branch called econometrics which is concerned with providing empirical content. Philosophy usually lacks such content, and is usually backed with gut feelings and blustering authority. Better alternatives would be roots in scientific aspects of psychology, anthropology, evolution, and other fields.

It's common knowledge that science MODELS reality, and that the models give approximations of the measurements we take. And often we have pretty good ideas of how close the approximations are and why they are only that close. If only philosophy was that humble, and if only philosophers had the concept of confidence interval.

Using a discrete model where a continuous model is needed.

Any time you are presented with a foundational assertion, such as self-ownership, where you are forced to say yes or no, rather than discuss how much or when you value it. For example, while you may prefer self-ownership, you might not in all cases. For example, where you have a choice of slavery or death.

We economists do not like lexicographic preference offerings precisely because they lead to catastrophe--to results that nobody can with a straight face say are good or moral. Or, at least, we think that those who do say such are either bullshitting us or are unbalanced in mind.

And they are unbalanced in mind--the fact that philosophers and lawyers claim to believe in lexicographic preference offerings is a sign that (a) their minds were unbalanced to begin with or (b) their professional training has unbalanced their minds.
Brad DeLong

We economists commit many sins, but IMHO lexicographic preferences is one of the few that we do not commit. There are always tradeoffs, and we are always optimizing between alternatives along some margin...
Brad DeLong

Assuming that small cases will scale up.

Engineers know that any time you scale up something, you can reach a point where it no longer works. Something that works between a pair of people might not work for a trio, for example.

Claiming that math is an example of objective truth

I frequently see thing such as:

"2+2=4 is true whether or not you or I believe it. It's objectively true."

Wow, that is horseshit. 2+2=4 is one statement out of an infinitude which also includes 2+2=1. Neither statement is "true" in most senses of truth (please tell me which one you mean!) Both are abstract models that may or may not correspond to real world examples. For example, 2 water drops plus 2 water drops could equal one big water drop. And I highly recommend Pigs is Pigs for a famous example of 1+1=thousands. In math, 2 infinities (aleph null) plus two infinities still equals one infinity. So mathematicians have counterexamples for your "objective truth". But there is also another facet of math you probably don't know. Math involves selection of statements based on their "beauty" (ie. desires of mathematicians.) Mathematicians usually prefer 2+2=4 because they find arithmetic beautiful: it is far more often superior for modelling than 2+2=1 usually is. In the development of calculus, philosophers complained greatly about infinitesimals and other concepts, but mathematicians found it beautiful anyway.

Nor are humans capable of objectivity or recognizing an objective truth. The best we have is intersubjective corroboration.

Another caveat: I don't know where people get the philosophical idea that math is objectively true. I haven't seen it attributed.

Presuming that clear and sharp categories can be used as a starting point.

There is a science of categorization called cladistics, but philosophers generally seem ignorant of it.

In Jorge Luis Borges essay "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins", there is a classification of animals from an apocryphal Chinese encyclopedia. The categories include:

  1. those that belong to the Emperor,
  2. embalmed ones,
  3. those that are trained,
  4. suckling pigs,
  5. mermaids,
  6. fabulous ones,
  7. stray dogs,
  8. those included in the present classification,
  9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
  10. innumerable ones,
  11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
  12. others,
  13. those that have just broken a flower vase,
  14. those that from a long way off look like flies.

All of these are very clear categories, but they do not work well together. Compare this to scientific classification by common descent, which does work well for pretty much all life.

That's how I view most philosophical ideas such as truth, justice, good, evil, etc. While you can study the relationships between such ideas endlessly, as you can the relationships between the Chinese categories, you do not have much hope of getting to the root explanations, as we have in biology, because the unifying basis is not obvious in these far descended ideas. Starting with such ideas is a pretty clear skyhook. These ideas need to be explained from much simpler, preferably positivist ideas rooted in evolution, anthropology, game theory, etc.

The science of cladistics bases classifications on shared, derived characteristics. Philosophers seldom even get to a simple Venn Diagram.

Glittering Generalities Of Propaganda

Very often, a philosophical statement omits qualifiers. This has the horrible effect of permitting interpretation as stating a universal. We are often expected to accept such universals because of some specific evidence, but that begs the problem of induction. This is a widely used principle of propaganda, the glittering generality.

"Free To Choose"

  • Who?
  • Is how free?
  • To choose what kinds of things?
  • From what limited set of choices?
  • Under what conditions?

"I have a right."

  • To what?
  • For what purpose?
  • Limited by?
  • A right against whom?
  • At what costs to others?
  • Claimed by?
  • Known because?
  • Created by?
  • Enforced by?


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