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How do you know you’re wrong about anything? Without having to use underlying philosophical theories that themselves involve axioms that can’t be proved, how is someone proven wrong about quite literally anything?

It seems to me that philosophy allows you to have an answer for anything. For example, an evidentialist might tell a flat earther that he is wrong to believe it. But the flat earther may simply respond by saying either that a) he does have enough evidence or b) to provide evidence for evidentialism which can lead to circularity.

If you can’t show that someone is wrong about anything, is the entire field of philosophy nothing more than unfalsifiable conjecture?

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    Everything is falsifiable (including that statement) @thinkingman Mar 12, 2023 at 16:16
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    Philosophy is not science. Mar 12, 2023 at 16:28
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    Yes, we separate philosophy and science. A lot of philosophy is speculative. Science tries to not be speculative.
    – Frank
    Mar 12, 2023 at 16:37
  • Disagree. Science is a philosophy by definition
    – user62907
    Mar 12, 2023 at 17:32
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    @Frank, the huge majority of science is speculative. Mar 12, 2023 at 18:02

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The key non-sequitur in your question is an implied one in the words 'nothing more than unfalsifiable conjecture' which suggests the unjustified assumption that if something is unfalsifiable it must be of little value.

Yes, much of philosophy is unfalsifiable conjecture. However, there is much more to philosophy than that. There is the endless study, reassessment and quotation of the misguided thinking of dead philosophers. There is also much categorisation, neologising and arguing at cross purposes a consequence of an inability to spot the consequences of ambiguous terminology. And finally, philosophy epitomises the art of concealing meaning in the most impenetrable and pretentious prose. So, just because something is unfalsifiable doesn't mean it can't be extremely useful.

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  • Some philosophy does leave you wondering: what's the point? :-) Usually older metaphysics.
    – Frank
    Mar 12, 2023 at 17:22
  • Value y it s subjective so I concur on that. However. I guess my point is that when it comes to figuring out the truth of a matter, philosophy becomes a matter of one conjecture vs another
    – user62907
    Mar 12, 2023 at 20:23
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    @thinkingman maybe that's because if you want to establish if some fact is true or false, the decision criterion cannot lie with a single person's opinion. Maybe that's another point where sciences depart from philosophy: some "external" verification is required for the claims, so that more than 1 person agrees.
    – Frank
    Mar 12, 2023 at 21:00
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    @thinkingman "Plato drew a sharp distinction between knowledge, which is certain, and mere true opinion, which is not certain." from the Wikipedia on platonic epistemology. He then goes on to base knowledge on Ideas - which is one option among others - but already at that time they realized that opinion would not lead very far to produce worthwhile knowledge. The challenge is to do non-opinion based philosophy.
    – Frank
    Mar 12, 2023 at 21:05
  • @Marco Ocram. It is true that philosophers have always rubbished the work of most of their predecessors. That's how philosophy, like most other academic disciplines, works. They often seem to get their best ideas from that critical process.
    – Ludwig V
    Mar 12, 2023 at 21:49
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The answer to the question in your last paragraph is, Yes. Well, you could try falsifying the contradictory of a conjecture. But I assume that you are assuming even that wouldn't work.

There is a philosophical argument that all claims in the empirical sciences must be falsifiable. The catch is that a falsification of any scientific theory is always possible. In that context, it can be tempting to dismiss all scientific theories as "empty conjecture". But even in that context, a theory that is the best we have for now, and has not yet been falsified, is not an empty conjecture. You'll find an account of falsifiability theory at Falsifiabiliy - Wikipedia

But this issue is not really relevant to much of our everyday knowledge. You can verify or falsify the claim that it is raining by going outside, looking around and perhaps holding out your hand. There's nothing wrong with that - unless you have decided to belief in radical scepticism. Even so, you have the right to decide for yourself whether common sense or the radical sceptic is the more plausible theory, and common sense does at least allow the possibility of falsifying everyday statements.

You are assuming that all proof must start from axioms. That's a particular philosophical theory. There are alternatives. See Foundationalism - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

But in most arguments, you will usually start from agreed premises, which makes life less complicated. If you can't agree some premises to start from, you are talking to someone who doesn't really want to argue, so it would be best to save your breath. One does meet such people from time to time.

In any case, you shouldn't assume from the fact that you might find a flat earther whom you cannot persuade of their error in two sentences, that the idea that the earth is flat cannot be falsified. In fact, it can, in a number of ways. But it would take longer than five minutes and would probably involve more than sitting in a room and talking about it.

There are other subjects where falsifiability is not relevant. Mathematical statements are not falsifiable. But that doesn't mean they are empty conjecture. They are proved or disproved by a different process. The same is true of logically true statements in general. These are known as necessary, or a priori or analytic statements. Both these disciplines use axioms to start from, but that doesn't mean they are empty conjecture.

Again, most statements about values are unfalsifiable. That's because they cannot be evaluated in the same way as empirical statements. That does not mean that they are "empty conjectures". You yourself seem to think that being an empty conjecture is a bad thing, and I cannot falsify that claim.

The traditional idea of philosophy included all efforts to discern the truth about the world. But gradually as the enterprises we now call the sciences developed, they began to be called by that name; this happened in the 19th century CE. What is now called philosophy is what was left, which is, it is true, is something of a melting-pot of rather chaotic ideas. But it is a forum in which new disciplines can develop and grow into their own identities. Psychology is a recent example. You'll find an account of this process at History of science - Wikipedia

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  • "Mathematical statements are not falsifiable." - maybe if you require the counter-example to be "empirical" in the sense of material/physical, but you could point to an "empirical" counter-example to a statement. If someone claimed "all natural numbers are divisible by 2", I could provide the "empirical" falsification that 3 is not divisible by 2.
    – Frank
    Mar 12, 2023 at 20:24
  • Yes, it is true that I was thinking of falsifiability as relevant to empirical general statements. That's it's usual context. Whether mathematicians would count your counter-example as an empirical (as opposed to "empirical") refutation, I wouldn't presume to say.
    – Ludwig V
    Mar 12, 2023 at 21:44
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    2+2=5 is trivially false hence a falsifiable statement in that you know it’s false. I’d argue math is the only field where you know you’re right or wrong many times
    – user62907
    Mar 12, 2023 at 22:11
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    @thinkingman but in mathematics, you don't falsify 2+2=5 by an observation as much as claim you have a proof it is false. "Falsifiability" seems to have been conceived by Popper for example to demarcate "scientific" Einsteinian relativity theory (where one observation could refute the theory) from "unscientific" psychoanalysis (which Popper thought was not testable). It doesn't look like Popper had maths in mind.
    – Frank
    Mar 12, 2023 at 22:43
  • I understand what he had in mind but I mean falsifiability in the sense of knowing when you’re wrong. And if you say that 2+2=5 you’re wrong without a doubt
    – user62907
    Mar 12, 2023 at 23:37
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Generally, the term falsifiable is used in relation to hypothesis within philosophy of science. If you mean to say that all philosophical claims can be falsified, then absolutely. In fact, the dominant view of practicing epistemologists is one of fallibilism (IEP).

Philosophers can and often are wrong, and just like scientists, that's part of the strength of the system, and not a weakness. How's that? Because the resultant knowledge that remains after mistakes are made and identified means that what philosophers claim, much like what scientists claim, tends to be more reliable and more accurate than general speculation by people not familiar with logical methods.

Can a box of nails be full of defective nails, not immediately visible to the naked eye? Of course! However, history bears out that most boxes of nails are reliable precisely because the manufacture of the nails tends to reduce, not increase, the number of defects compared to early methods. Philosophical claims are the same way.

I think the real sticking point is in recognizing that not everyone who is recognized as or claims to be a philosopher is actually a philosopher when one takes into account an analysis of philosophical methods. Increasingly, the nature of philosophy is being articulated by metaphilosophers who are philosophers who specialize in understanding what philosophy is. In Ancient Greece, the nature of philosophy was just being begun to be explored. These days, PhD's review 2,500 years of philosophical literature and make claims about the nature of logic and philosophy itself. A good start in book form is Overgaard et al.'s Metaphilosophy.

So, sure, in philosophy anyone can prove anything. But not all proofs are good, and a lot of what passes as philosophy is bad or dated philosophy. It is the job of the contemporary philosopher to take stock of the failures of previous philosophers and guide thinking past their mistakes.

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Falsifiability is a term coined by Karl Popper, who was arguably the worst philosophers ever, I myself don't even consider him a philosopher, he is an earlier version of Richard Dawkins, whom some mistakenly call a philosopher.

Falsifiability is only applicable to science. Not any science, but empirical anglo-saxon science of the Enlightenment era, where we conduct simple physical experiments and observe results. 90% of modern physics has nothing to do with this superseded version of science. Electrons, quarks and quantum phenomena are not empirical, and therefore not falsifiable.

Psychoanalysis, despite what Popper claimed, is falsifiable, Carl Jung conducted experiments where he showed that mental trauma causes delays in response time, which later lead him to develop his theory of psychological complexes.

Your question is trying to apply a Popperian concept, which is not even applicable to science, to criticize/discredit philosophy in it's totality, which is worse than discrediting quantum field theory because quantum physicists have not obtained the philosopher's stone.

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  • If "90% of modern physics" if not conducting physical experiments and observing results, what do they do? Granted, there are the theorists who theorize. But what do the experimental physicists do?
    – Frank
    Mar 12, 2023 at 22:51
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    it's pretty weird business what they do actually. they are not observing results, they basically gather gigabytes and terabytes of chaotic data, and then they built extremely complex software models to extract meaning out of it. they have whole teams of people interpreting this data, the process is indirect, tedious, difficult, full of assumptions, and often leads to several contradictory conclusions. for example, at cern they analyzed tons of data for months, and then suddenly announced that they discovered the higgs god particle, ain't that some great news? Mar 12, 2023 at 23:23
  • Yeah for sure, but that mountain of data is the observations coming out of the experiment. Yes, it is indirect. So is most of astronomy. "Direct" is ambiguous, but if constrained science to what can be observed by the naked eye, we wouldn't have much science at all. There was nothing wrong with the methodology for the Higgs - that's just way things go when you ask ever harder questions.
    – Frank
    Mar 12, 2023 at 23:54
  • The proof of the Four Color Map theorem was pretty long, as I recall. We seem to have proven in the US that two colors doesn't work very well. But it has taken hundreds of years and millions of lives.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 15, 2023 at 10:24

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