The philosopher went to a party. He grabbed a drink and looked around. After a while he looked around again and started to frown. His host came up to him and asked him why he was looking puzzled. The philosopher replied that he wasn’t sure that he was at a party.
The host looked around and everyone was chatting, drinking and eating or dancing. Music was playing and the lights had been dimmed. The host asked him why he wasn’t sure, and the philosopher replied that, while it appeared that he was at a party, he couldn’t be sure that he was, because it could be that, in spite of appearances, he wasn’t at a party and that all the people here could be merely pretending that it was a party.
Of course, if he asked anyone, they would say that it was a party, but they would say that whether or not it really was a party. When the host asked why anyone would go to the trouble to set up a fake party, he stated that he didn’t know, but if he could determine that it was a fake party, then that would be the next question. If it proved to be a real party then he could relax and enjoy himself. At this point that the philosopher found himself alone, as his host had left him to his musings.
There’s a saying that “if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”. This saying satisfies most people most of the time, but (philosophers aside) doesn’t satisfy everyone, all of the time.
When a top politician is replaced mid-term, the person who replaces him or her often showers praise on him or her, and states how much the party is in debt to the “retiring” politician, who may be stepping down to “spend more time with family”, most people would recognise this for what it is, a political coup. Few would believe that the top politician wanted to resign and that he or she really had a choice.
In this case the metaphorical bird is most likely a turkey, but everyone insists that it is a duck. Even though it doesn’t look like a duck and doesn’t quack like a duck, and doesn’t even walk like a duck.
It’s pretty easy for us to detect the coup for what it is and mostly the media will report it as a coup, but the sceptical philosopher has no easy way to determine if he should relax and enjoy himself or go home. He knows about the political coup and sees this happen fairly often. Something happens and it is presented in one way, and everyone knows that this “duck” is not in fact a duck. So, why could not the same be true about the party?
The basic question that underlies the philosopher’s dilemma is “How do we know what we know?”, which a branch of philosophy that philosophers call “Epistemology“. When we read in the papers that a top politician has stepped down, or we go to a party, most people are quite aware of what is going on. We base our awareness on previous knowledge of prior political coups and previous parties.
We are quite happy to apply the negative (he didn’t really want to resign) and the positive (it’s a great party!) to these situations based on experience. The philosopher can’t do that, as this leads to the “problem of induction”. Maybe in the last three coups the politician didn’t want to resign, and maybe the last three gatherings were in fact parties, but this time it may be different and the philosopher has the problem of knowing one way or the other.
Well, actually the philosopher has the problem of needing to know one way or the other. A true philosopher is a sceptical about everything he sees or hears or otherwise experiences, but there is a fundamental problem with the issue of “knowing”.
If you tell a philosopher that the sun will rise tomorrow, he or she may ask you how you know it will. If you reply that you know it because the sun came up yesterday, and the day before and the day before that, the philosopher will question how you know that what happened in the past will happen will happen in the future. He will point out that if you toss a coin and it turns up heads three times in a row, that it doesn’t mean that it will turn up heads the next time it is tossed. It’s a 50:50 chance that that it will come up tails.
If you then appeal to science the philosopher can point out that science is built on theories and experiments to disprove them. No experiment can prove a theory as such because you can do as many experiments as you like which turn out to agree with the theory and the philosopher can suggest that one more experiment might disprove the theory, and if it does, bang goes the theory.
Actually, if a theory is any good, then it won’t be completely destroyed by an experiment that goes against the theory. No, it is more likely that the theory is patched up to take account of the errant data, and the process goes on. Also if the theory is any good any experiment which contradicts it is likely to happen at the extremes of the domain of the theory, and it can be usefully used for the vast majority of cases that don’t occur in those extremes.
What about the philosopher at the party? He can prove one way or another that the gathering is really a party, and not something else. His host has a couple of options at least. Firstly he can suggest that the philosopher takes it as a working hypothesis that it really is a party. Then he can take part, and if he enjoys himself, that doesn’t disprove the working hypothesis. Secondly the host can find another philosopher and introduce the two, who can then jointly discuss the validity of the hypothesis (that it is a real party).
Or thirdly, he can avoid asking a philosopher to any of his parties.