Most of the time, we don’t have the option of formally proving our ideas. It’s really only in math and science that we can do this. But most intellectual problems in the real world don’t fit that paradigm. Most real-world intellectual problems are decision problems. You have a group of people who are trying to decide something (a workplace, a family, a country, a group of friends, a romantic partnership). They need to share ideas with each other, and eventually they need to agree on something. But they need to do this without the use of formal proof, because almost always, you can’t prove that your idea for what to do is the best one.
The situation is the same in philosophy and religion. We don’t have the luxury of formal proof in these disciplines, but we still need to think about things together and eventually agree about something.
We want to hold philosophical and religious beliefs, but it’s sort of meaningless to do so unless other people agree with us. I’ve tried being a lone believer who has his own perspective on reality that nobody else shares. But I can’t shake this feeling that I’ve regressed into solipsism when I do that. If my beliefs are unproven and held only by me, by what metric are they tested? How do I know that they’re right? How could I possibly distinguish between a private true belief, and a private delusion?
“Proof” can take many forms. There’s formal proof, which is the best kind. But you can also know something just through having experienced it. It is in this sense which I know, for instance, that my happiness is mostly a function of my inner state, rather than a function of what’s going on in my life. I’ve ascertained that experientially, though I can’t prove it to somebody else.
And a further kind of proof, I think, comes from a lot of people adopting a belief. We’ve never had any formal proof that democracy is a good idea; but the fact that a lot of people believe in it constitutes a strong argument for it. Similarly, the very fact that most people believe in God constitutes an argument in favor of God’s existence.
Now, if I have an idea, and I share it with other people, two things can happen. Other people can think the idea is good and adopt it; which boosts my confidence that the idea is right. Or other people can say, “hmm, I don’t think that’s such a good idea;” which lowers my confidence that the idea is right.
People act as a sounding board for each other’s ideas. You put an idea out there, and if it echoes throughout the social matrix, resounding again and again, then it’s a good idea. If it dies soon after it leaves its maker, then it’s not a good idea; so the theory goes.
The problem is that our social matrix doesn’t seem to be a very efficient sounding board. I’ve probably written up hundreds of philosophical ideas, but the number of these ideas that gained traction among my peers is close to zero. I spent years making music, but nobody really listened to my music.
Am I to conclude, from these facts, that I’m a bad philosopher and a bad musician? That seems false. More like, people aren’t listening to me. But I can’t just blame other people: maybe I’m not listening to other people either. We’re not listening to each other.
I think this is what stymies philosophy and metaphysics. To do philosophy, you really need the sounding board effect, because it’s basically all you’ve got. The social sounding board needs to be sensitive and of high quality. People need to be able to give you honest and sympathetic feedback based on genuine listening to your idea.
We don’t have that for philosophy. Even philosophy departments aren’t that. If you tell your idea to a philosophy professor, they’ll probably say it’s wrong. Everybody thinks everybody else is wrong in philosophy departments. That doesn’t get you anywhere; being told you’re always wrong teaches you nothing.
I think science has flourished over philosophy, religion, art, music, etc., in large part because science has the advantage of formal proof. With science, you can have ideas getting widespread traction, without people, y’know, actually having to listen deeply and sympathetically to each other. We don’t know how to listen, so we like science.