Daniel Dennett argues that exploring some philosophical problems is like exploring a game he calls “chmess”:
Chmess is just like chess except that the king can move two squares in any direction, not one. (…) There are just as many a priori truths of chmess as there are of chess (an infinity), and they are just as hard to discover. And that means that if people actually did get involved in investigating the truths of chmess, they would make mistakes, which would need to be corrected, and this opens up a whole new field of a priori investigation, the higher-order truths of chmess, such as the following:
1. Jones’ (1989) proof that p is a truth of chmess is flawed: he overlooks the following possibility…
2. Smith’s (2002) claim that Jones’ (1989) proof is flawed presupposes the truth of Brown’s lemma (1975), which has recently been challenged by Garfinkle (2002)…
You’ve guessed what he’s getting at with this: sophisticated theorising about chmess may be impressive, but ultimately it’s just a waste of intellectual potential. Philosophers need to separate projects worth pursuing from chmess-like projects. Here’s Dennett’s idea on how to do it:
One good test to make sure you’re not just exploring the higher-order truths of chmess is to see if people aside from philosophers actually play the game. Can anybody outside of academic philosophy be made to care whether you’re right about whether Jones’ counterexample works against Smith’s principle? Another such test is to try to teach the stuff to uninitiated undergraduates. If they don’t ‘‘get it,’’ you really should consider the hypothesis that you’re following a self-supporting community of experts into an artifactual trap.
Does it work though? I’m not fully convinced. First of all, I completely disagree with Dennett on the a priori bit. He believes that “philosophy is an a priori discipline, like mathematics, or at least it has an a priori methodology at its core” – as I wrote here before, this seems to be a misunderstanding. That’s the main reason why I think typical philosophical problems aren’t like chmess – nor like chess, for that matter. But let’s leave it aside and assume he’s right. Is his test any good?
I have three objections. First, people can be made to care about all sorts of things, like Kim Kardashian’s sex life or differences between iPhone 11 and iPhone 12. This doesn’t necessarily mean there’s any value in studying them.
Secondly, it’s already well known that while non-philosophers care about some philosophical problems a lot, they aren’t too much bothered by others. Compare questions like: “Is abortion morally permissible?”, “Is capitalism justified?” or “Does God exist?” to questions like “Are there any abstract objects?”, “Is asserting that something is true the same as simply asserting it?” or “In order to have a certain belief, is it necessary to be related to one’s environment in a certain way?”. It’s clear that people find the latter much less exciting. But it’s not a good reason to think they’re less important, or that it makes less sense to investigate them. This becomes clear once we notice that the exciting problems are often dependent on the boring ones. For example, fun issues in practical ethics cannot be fully addressed without first solving some abstruse and tedious issues in metaethics. However the way in which the boring and the exciting are interrelated can also be quite obscure to laypeople. It is of course possible for them to discover it, but by the time they discover it they probably aren’t laypeople anymore.
This brings me to another reason why non-philosophers don’t find some philosophical problems attractive, which is they don’t really understand them. It’s not that easy to get one’s head around positions like representationalism about consciousness, or contextualism about knowledge. It might be the case that only philosophers care, or “can be made to care”, about whether those views are true, but this is only because no one else understrands them. And this surely isn’t a situation unique to philosophy: science is also full of problems only scientists can care about as only scientists can understand them. And just like in science, philosophical problems may or may not be worth exploring, but finding out whether they are is not something that can always be decided by consulting laypeople.