The Virtue of Failure

September 7, 2016

One way to think of the progress of science is as a constant, though halting, procession of failures. Revolutions in the ways we think of nature’s mechanisms often occur when previous attempts to explain them reach dead ends. For instance, the notion of the “aether”, a theory that posited some underlying universal, omnipresent material through which light must travel (given light was already known to travel in waves and some substrate was necessary for it to do so in a vacuum), was tested most famously by Michelson and Morley in the 19th century. It is often cited as one of the most famous failed experiments. When they noted their failure to find what they set out to find, they moved on to other sorts of studies relating to the wavelengths of light, and numerous other scientists continued, and continued to fail, to find evidence for the “aether.” This failure paved the way for a new sort of theory to emerge, specifically that posited by Einstein in 1905: special relativity. Special relativity is a very successful theory, and continues to find confirmation in experiment after experiment. Should some future experiment cast doubt on special relativity, it will surely mark a new shift and provide new opportunities for us to explore nature’s complexities. Or it could well be right, and we can continue to safely assume that the speed of light is a constant regardless of our observational reference frame.

              The failure of aether theory was necessary for science to progress, and the theory was testable by observation. The fact that the theory was amenable to failure is what made it a scientific theory to begin with, as with special relativity. What can we learn about this and numerous other examples of the positive value of failure in progress for philosophy?

              One big thing we should consider is the possibility that in order for there to be progress in philosophy, its postulates must be amenable both to testing and to failure. A theory that says, for instance, compassion is the basis for the good should be open to testing. The nature of the testing will of course differ from that in science because the observation of values and norms is largely subjective, though we can derive general trends in large enough populations by observation, both historical and prospective. This is why there is a great deal of promise in fields like “x-phi” (experimental philosophy) which uses scientific means to garner individual preferences and extrapolate meaningful data about populations about such things as “the good” and other values. We could thus test how people act in various situations, try to understand their stated vs. apparent values, and derive some notion about “the good” as it relates to various strategies, populations, and social policies. Philosophers wishing to try to understand human behaviors, rather than simply proclaim some set of values or norms prima facie, are increasingly relying upon scientific methods to test their hypotheses and understand how humans actually think and behave in relation to those hypotheses.

              Progress in philosophy is also a litany of failures leading to better more refined notions about our world and our place in it. The general advance toward naturalism and a better understanding of the nature and role of science and its proper manners of operation characterize the last century of philosophy writ large. The best philosophy is thus always contingent, like science, and proposes ideas that we can test, that we can observe, and that are able to fail. There is reason to be optimistic about the present and future progress of philosophy. A recent survey of “what philosophers believe” shows that philosophers largely admit many of the same criteria as scientists do. For instance, those that accept or lean toward non-skeptical realism (about the outside world, that the world exists apart from our thoughts) is 81.6%. A healthy majority accepted compatibilism/determinism (59.1%). 72.8% accepted or leaned toward atheism. 75.1% accept or lean toward scientific realism.

              In sum, it appears that the current state of modern philosophy is typified by people accepting the sort of criteria we know work in science. We accept the existence of an outside world whose laws can be uncovered by observation, that our hypotheses about the universe can be wrong and corrected by better observation, and that natural laws govern the universe — including us. Can philosophy continue to fail upward with the sort of success that science has? There is every reason to believe it can as long as most philosophers embrace the same fundamental precepts about the universe and its inherent naturalism as do most scientists.

              There may remain mystics and obscurantists and others who wish to propose ideas that cannot somehow be probed, tested, or falsified. There is obviously some market for that, as there remains one for religious beliefs. But the trend of academic philosophy appears to be one consistent with our quest for a better understanding of ourselves and the universe we inhabit. Humanism, as a subset of that, must also remain open to falsification. This is why I have long insisted (to a fair amount of opposition) that to remain philosophically and scientifically valid, humanism must be seen largely as a method, not some set of axioms or beliefs. At any one time, while we may generally accept some similar set of hypotheses within humanism, we must also hold them to be contingent. “What is the good” is a properly philosophical question we can examine, and “it is good to be compassionate” is a logically possible hypothesis, but it must remain open to testing and falsification, else it becomes a religious belief. The claim “if you are not compassionate you are not a humanist” is, I contend, anti-humanistic because the necessary connection of compassion to “the good” has yet to be demonstrated. It may well be a true statement of belief, but it is not known to be true. We need to hold that hypothesis contingent, explore it in empirical ways, prone to falsification, and be able to admit that it may be a perfectly fine opinion and position, but the method of humanism means that we are constantly exploring, testing, and improving our beliefs to best match our observations. Active, honest humanists can hold contrary notions about compassion.

              It would be a shame if we embrace empiricism and science in everything except that which we feel defines us and our modernism best. Our firmly held beliefs, even those that place humanism at the forefront of progress in philosophy, could well be like the aether, and nothing privileges them beyond testing and falsification, though for now we have a good deal of evidence that they are leading the way toward a better understanding of our world and ourselves.