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Is Armchair Knowledge Possible?

· 10 min read

A scientist who ceases for a moment to try to solve his questions in order to inquire instead why he poses them or whether they are the right questions to pose ceases for the time to be a scientist and becomes a philosopher.

-- Gilbert Ryle, Philosophical Arguments


I have too frequently heard skepticism expressed toward the usefulness (or worse: the epistemic viability) of armchair theorizing. The term "Armchair" is usually meant in pejorative sense to indicate that no real work could be done that way. I choose to just lean in to the term. Whether or not we take armchair theorizing to include mathematics, computer science, and logic this skepticism is unwarranted. There are a few subclasses of armchair theorizing that are usually in the crosshairs of those eager to criticize it. These typically include ethics, cosmology, analytic philosophy, theoretical physics, and much more. Given the amount of silly theorizing that goes on, the existence of criticism is unsurprising. However, I still see most of this criticism fall flat even when the analysis itself is not valid or useful.

Here I will argue that if we are going to accept any type of pure conceptual analysis as necessarily "Garbage in, Garbage out", which we should, then we are then committed to accepting it as necessarily "Gold in, Gold out". If we are committed to "Gold in, Gold out", then it follows that armchair knowledge can be generated and that should not be surprising.

Additionally, I will argue that the armchair toolkit consists of many useful tools that are not exhaustively described by 'listing facts', but nevertheless are indispensable in the furtherance of knowledge.

Naive Pure Empiricism

Can we really generate knowledge from the armchair? How is that possible? I have myself been struck with a mysterious feeling around this question. If knowledge is about the world in some sense, how could I just sit here and come up with some? This may be an intuition only shared by those whom William James referred to as "hard-nosed empiricists" and they are mostly the target of the arguments here.

Philosopher David Chapman holds such a "hard-nosed" view with the only field allowed to generate armchair knowledge being mathematics:

If it were only this tweet where I had heard this sentiment expressed, I would likely just ignore it and move on. Indeed I would like to believe this position to be a straw-man I have invented, but sadly I have met many individuals who share this view, some deeply and some only on a superficial intuitive level.

I would like to interpret this charitably as "Don't speculate or try to reason abstractly too much about something that is best left to the domain of empirical research.", or maybe "We need SOME empirical content somewhere along the line to generate knowledge." I mostly agree with those and the second is something even most die-hard rationalists might accept. Chapman's words here invite a much stronger interpretation, even if maybe they are hyperbole. They espouse what I'll call Pure Naive Empiricism.

You have to poke things and see what happens.

Other than maybe in math, you can’t figure anything out by just thinking about it.

Let's slightly reformulate these claims while sticking to their cash-value as the formulation of Pure Naive Empiricism:

Pure Naive Empiricism: Knowledge is only attainable via empirical experiments, except in mathematics *
(* We could charitably assume that by "mathematics" Chapman also includes other abstract fields of knowledge.)

This claim is obviously false unless we adopt a rather extreme interpretation of what "empirical experiments" are. Pure Naive Empiricism appears to be a popular position among those not fond of abstraction that impinges on reality too closely. It would be a simple world if math and observations were all we needed for furthering knowledge.

Why is Pure Naive Empiricism entitled to stop at mathematics? (even if it is "mathematics plus some other stuff") If mathematics is an "acceptable" epistemic pursuit then why is formal reasoning about cosmology, ethics, metaphysics, or mind not? I suspect the Pure Naive Empiricist does not have a satisfactory answer to this question. We don't need to go poke anything to find out why either.

I will argue that there is no viable place to draw the line between "acceptable" and "not acceptable" analysis and so the distinction is bogus. Either all conceptual analysis of any kind (including mathematics) is capable of generating knowledge, if the premises are true and the rules are followed, or none of it is.

'Garbage In, Garbage Out' Implies 'Gold In, Gold Out'

In learning elementary symbolic logic and my first programming languages I was taught a simple maxim of any deduction: "Garbage in, Garbage out." I believe this should uncontroversially apply to any formal language and indeed to everyday human languages in formulating and assessing arguments. Consider the following argument.

  1. All Blorgs are Schmorgs

  2. Skrump is a Blorg

  3. Skrump is a Schmorg

This is a valid argument but not a sound one. Nobody will ever care that Skrump is a Schmorg because it is a Blorg. We fed garbage in and we got garbage out.

What was not taught to me alongside this was "Gold in, Gold out". We usually don't have good reasons to care about this one because it is so obviously true. If we are writing a simple Python script that converts Celsius to Fahrenheit, we already know, trivially, that if it is 35oC outside and my script says that converts to 95oF, that this fact applies to the real temperature outside right now. We usually only need to be reminded of "Garbage in, Garbage out" when our analytical processes have generated an absurdity that we become convinced is true.

If the falsehood of at least one premise guarantees that a valid argument is not sound then all the premises truths guarantee that the argument is sound. We cannot rationally hold "Garbage in, Garbage out" without holding "Gold in, Gold out". If we have to hold both, then we cannot deny that the products of analysis are true. So, straightforwardly, if something is true and we have good reasons to believe it without other defeating reasons, we have knowledge.

If Armchair Knowledge Were Not Possible?

Pure Naive Empiricism has extremely bizarre implications. For example, if all knowledge were generated solely by empirical experiments then we would have to know all of the conclusions entailed by our current beliefs, both the actual and conditional implications. We clearly don't know those. So either we claim that those somehow "are not knowledge" or we admit that Pure Naive Empiricism is a ridiculous view.

If armchair knowledge were not possible, how would we know what questions to ask to guide empirical inquiry? Should we be looking for consciousness in the brain? Do thoughts have a location? Can actual infinities exist? Could the universe be fundamentally random? Does it follow from space-time theory that space and time are not ontologically distinct? Is math real? Is everything we believe false because we only evolved to survive? Are these good questions at all? To find out if these questions are worth pursuing, we need armchair theorizing, even if it is speculative. We need to know that "this is the right/wrong question". The alternative is literally conducting an experiment to test every absurd hypothesis that we can come up with. Armchair theory, even speculative theory, can and does save us eons of unneeded experimentation.

Additionally, it is often overlooked by the Pure Naive Empiricist that not all knowledge-pursuing consists in the gathering of facts, deductively generated or discovered. We need to know the right questions and the right way to think about them to have success in any inquiry. Some ant colonies are complex systems whose behavior is best understood emergently. No listing of simple facts about these ants by itself, without the analytical armchair toolkit, would give us this insight.

What Armchair Theorizing Gets Wrong

Some armchair theorizing is not worth the mental energy spent on it. If armchair knowledge can be knowledge at all, then it can be true, but what kind of armchair knowledge is useful? We should answer this question partially with reference to the two maxims above. I can say that I know that if "All Blorgs are Schmorgs and Skrump is a Blorg" then "Skrump is a Schmorg" but it is clearly of zero use whatsoever. The concepts we reason about, if we want to generate not only knowledge but knowledge that matters, must be clear and serve some end.

If we have some valid reasoning about minds, it is only as useful as the argument's concept of "minds" is related to the one(s) that we actually use. If we say minds are in rocks and atoms as well as in brains, then are we still talking about the same content anymore or have we made a move that makes our terms devoid of any of the predictive or explanatory power that made them useful? Perhaps in the future we will have some other theoretical reasons to shift the semantic ground away from the folk-concept of "minds".

Generally, we should be skeptical of armchair theorizing that overextends concepts beyond the scope of their reasonable usefulness. When that limit has been overreached is itself often a tricky philosophical question. Some philosophers believe that the Einsteinian notion of space-time should be scrapped because of analytic arguments about how time must be ontologically distinct from space. Though I cannot rule out these conclusions as false with a hand wave, we should be skeptical when armchair thinking has purportedly overturned a useful empirical framework.

What Can Armchair Theorizing Do?

Every implication of our current beliefs, conceptual definitions, and strategies of inquiry is not laid bare before us just by having them. If that were the case, we would be supercomputers. That space needs to be mapped out and the edges of the map keep expanding. Useful armchair theory is not all pure deduction, sometimes it takes the form of reframing questions, guiding inquiry, and using the power of analogy to deepen understanding or see new possibilities. All of these modes and many more are indispensable to science and to good human lives.

Generally, useful armchair theory comes in the form of deductive arguments, clarifications of existing concepts, demonstrating the incompatibility of certain beliefs, the dispelling of illusory problems, the creation of new questions, meta-inquiry, and the discovery of unforeseen implications of currently known truths.


I hope I have made it clear that outright denial of the possibility of non-experimental knowledge or 'armchair knowledge' is absurd. I have argued that it is irrational to reject the ability of analytical reasoning to generate knowledge and that it is wrong to limit the scope of the furtherance of knowledge to mere 'fact collection'. I think that the intuitions to the contrary are motivated by putting empirical inquiry on a pedestal while taking for granted the foundations that support it.

The analytic toolkit that can be accessed from the armchair cannot reach out and interface with the physical world, of course, but it simply does not need to in order to be useful, generate truth, and make lives better.