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Are there any examples of philosophical problems that have been solved? How can we know a proposed solution to a philosophical problem is correct?

Examples of "philosophical problems":

  • If a tree falls in a forest, and there's no one around, does it make a sound? (ans: we can dissolve this question by drilling down into what you mean by "sound". Alfred may think sound is the compressed airwaves that emanate from the tree, and Shirley may think that sound is the neural state when a human brain processes certain electrical signals).
  • Do we have free will?
  • What is the right ethical system? (meta-ethics)
  • In a vacuum, should you push a man onto train tracks to save 5 people?
  • What is the right decision theory?
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    I've heard it said that they are not solved, but dissolved. – Lucas May 10 '14 at 19:29
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    I don't think philosophical problems can be solved once and for all. In the face of counter arguments you can retain almost every solution, if you're prepared to discard some of your intuitions. In other words there are no knock down arguments in philosophy. Rather what philosophers ought to do when discussing a problem is, to put it in David Lewis's words, 'to measure the price' of solutions: i.e. they should determine what the pros and cons regarding some solution are and, when all the arguments and counterexamples have been given to check which of the solutions fares better. – sequitur May 10 '14 at 20:18
  • Curiously enough all philosophical questions already have been solved by Socrates - "Know thyself" – Asphir Dom May 10 '14 at 22:11
  • If it helps, we had an 80-year-old beech tree come down last year in the gales. Me and the wife were both out at the time, but the neighbours said it definitely did make a noise. So we can tick that one off the list. – Maxwell Buchanan Oct 6 '18 at 22:57
  • @AsphirDom Socrates was quoting the dictum carved above the gate to the Oracle At Delphi, a significantly more ancient piece of wisdom – CriglCragl Oct 8 '18 at 20:36
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There are lots of results. Most of them are conditional in form. "If you are a Humean about laws of nature, then you should believe . . . about free will" Most doctoral dissertations have some result like that as their conclusion. There are some times definitive results that aren't conditional in form like, "Quine was wrong to deny that there is an informative modal logic." Those non-conditional results are often negative judgments about some previous philosopher's position.

The Big Problems that gsastry mentions don't look like they get answered. But, I think that's not really right. People talk about the big problems and they propose positions on them, some of which are more convincing, some of which are less convincing. The problem is that you can't really call any of these positions definitive solutions because each position engenders other difficulties, and the solutions to those difficulties engender other problems. It's not that no progress is being made, in these cases. Rather, I think it's that philosophical problems are like fractals. We can delineate broad families of solutions to the big problems that seem reasonable. But as we zoom in on one family of solutions, to argue for it, we appeal to premises that need defense and so we encounter difficulties. So we zoom in on those difficulties, etc. Now, as a matter of fact we are successively painting a more and more detailed picture, but it is easy to see how this kind of slow progress is frustrating, to the public and to the philosophers themselves.

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Courtesy of the Vintage News

The 300 year old philosophy problem that was solved only in 2011

The piece was called An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding by John Locke. Locke was a physician and philosopher who explored how Man understood his surroundings using his five senses.

He explained in the essay how a person blind from birth would never be able to visualize objects, and would have to rely on other senses to fill the gap.

Molyneux’s interest was clearly piqued by this section, as he wrote Locke a letter soon after.

The letter outlined a simple scenario. As quoted in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, it read like this: “A Man, being born blind, and having a Globe and a Cube, nigh of the same bignes… and being taught or Told, which is Called the Globe, and which the Cube… Then both being taken from Him, and Laid on a Table, Let us Suppose his Sight Restored to Him.” . . .

The question Molyneux posed from this hypothetical situation created one of the most-debated problems in philosophical history.

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Lord Kelvin is alleged to have said around 1900 "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement." The few conundrums, the abscence of the ether, blackbody radiation, and a few other things, in facg brought about a complete revolution in physics. We know another revolution awaits us, when we can figure out how to probe the Planck scale. The lesson we must learn, is that while we can finish the work on current observations, we do nit finish the observations.

The tree problem offers a simple example. How do we define sound, as a causal property, or a subjective experience? Choose definition 1, yes. Definition 2, no.

Your other examples point to the bigger problem as seen in physics. The observatiins are not over. The definitions are dynamic, and affect future behaviour and observations. Choosing to isolate free will as a concept has consequences, and it arose out of theogeny and reconciling the problem of evil with idealisied monotheistic deity (not the biblical one, it should be noted). Philosophy is great at probing the assumptions we smuggle into our definitions.

Wittgenstein claimed to have 'solved philosophy' following this tack, as discussed on here: Do mainstream philosophers believe that Wittgenstein "solved" philosophy? He more or less said, make good definitiins that follow clear consistent rules, and abandon the rest, "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent." His picture of philosophy was as a kind of therapy for our confusiin created around definitions. He continued to think and to write, but you might describe this as him taking his general theory and applying it to specifics. Most celebratedly, he dissolved the idea of Descartes that we are dissembodied thinkers, recognising instead that we do cannot have a meaningful private language. This dissolved many problems associated with substance dualism.

Ethics and decision making are essentially dynamic, we must constantly wield them against unknowable situations, and new behaviours and reactions of others. We cannot help but need and do philosophy, in doing that. Embryonic stem cells, artificial general intelligence, when to go to war in a nuclear armed world. There are no final answers, because the facts on the ground cntinue to shift, and new conundrums will emerge.

We don't solve physics. We reconcile apparently conflicting phenomena, or choose between models. Similarly with philosophy, we have results like Godel's Incompleteness Theorems which prove certain expectations are incompatible, or the private language argument which dissolves most of the ideas about a priori concepts. The real work of philosophy is to clarify definitions, so we can discuss experiences in the world meaningfully. Do not underestimate the value of that, only when it was applied to how to gain accurate knowledge of the world could science begin. But definitions are only the beginning, the real work is not in making sense of the past, but of the future.

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Philosophy is much like the field of artificial intelligence.

There's immense numbers of problems that philosophers considered that are pretty well solved, such as the composition of matter, or the origin of species. The thing is, when we can prove something or other, we stop calling it philosophy and start calling it science. (Similarly, when an artificial intelligence problem gets reduced to something we understand and handle routinely, it isn't AI any more.)

Therefore, there are no solved problems that are philosophical for very long.

  • AI doesn't only act on problems that are reducible, it mostly acts on problems that are not. (Imagery identification, music production, user preferences etc.) – Winter Oct 9 '18 at 13:41
  • Sure. At least when it started, it covered reducible and non-reducible problems. Similarly, philosophy used to cover the composition of matter and the nature of justice. What's left is mostly what can't be studied scientifically. – David Thornley Oct 9 '18 at 17:33
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In academia no philosophical problems have been solved. Indeed, the very idea that we might solve one is laughed at. If it were otherwise you would not be asking this question.

All philosophical problems are examples of solved problems. It's just that the academic establishment hasn't noticed. The solutions are well-known elsewhere but are rejected for being too 'mystical', whatever this means.

If someone were to ask this question on a Buddhist forum they would advised to do their homework.

EDIT: Metaphysical problems take the form of antinomies, dilemmas or undecidable questions. The solution would be to deny the fundamental reality of the distinction on which they are predicated. This results in a form of global compatabilism for which such problems cannot arise. Thus no dilemmas or antinomies arise for a doctrine of Unity and a neutral metaphysical position. We may not be convinced that this is a correct solution but it works and nobody has found another that works.

In order to falsify or refute this solution it would be necessary to show that the Perennial philosophy is wrong to claim that all extreme metaphysical theories are logically absurd, but we've been trying to do this for centuries with no success.

A doctrine of Unity states there is no such thing as a metaphysical dilemma. They would be caused not by a misperception of the world but by a misinterpretation of our perception. Thus we see little discussion of antinomies in the Perennial tradition. They are dismissed as instances of a dualism that must be overcome for a correct view and a solution for metaphysics. This solution is called 'non-dualism'.

In this way a doctrine of Unity dissolves all metaphysical problems except that of understanding what this solution would imply for 'me and my world', which is a genuine problem but not intractable.

  • It sounds like what you're saying is that you have a preferred metaphysics and philosophy, perhaps Buddhist, and you consider it to be the answer. It happens that I disagree strongly with some elements of Buddhist metaphysics, and indeed so does a whole lot of traditional Indian philosophy. Can you show me how some of these are solved in a way that will convince me? – David Thornley Oct 8 '18 at 22:23
  • @DavidThornley - I'll add an edit to provide some more substance. I rather think its up to its critics to show that the perennial philosophy is not the solution but I'll say a bit more. – PeterJ Oct 9 '18 at 12:37
  • Saying that the problems do not exist is one way of solving them, but simply stating that they cannot exist because our logic is not able to solve them as stated (a crucial aspect often forgotten) is a pretty weak position. It also cannot be the whole of an answer since it only reflects a single position within philosophy. – Philip Klöcking Oct 9 '18 at 13:38
  • Yes, it represents a single position. After all, there are unlikely to be two correct positions. I agree that a convincing case would require a lot more words but this is not an attempt to convince, just to indicate that the problems of philosophy are local to Plato's academic tradition and do not arise for the advaita philosophy. To claim they are unsolved is to ignore a large part of philosophy. . – PeterJ Oct 10 '18 at 11:26

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