Philosophy Lives!

Teen Skepchick is primarily a science and (obviously) skeptical blog. I’d like to address something that is often overlooked by the more sciencey types among us (no offense to those who love science, they’ve gotten us where we are today and I like them a great deal). The important of philosophy!!! Recently, Stephen Hawking made the claim that philosophy is dead. I’ve run into a lot of scientists who think this way. So here I would like to lay out a defense of philosophy, especially for those young scientists among us (and the older ones too). I believe philosophy is integral in the way we interpret the scientific data we gain, as well as extremely important for a decent appreciation of different ways of thinking. It helps us rigorously examine our logic, and as an academic discipline it covers ground that is addressed nowhere else, as well as teaches students how to think, argue and defend their thoughts. I know that I’ve brushed on a lot of these topics before, but philosophy is my passion, and I want to give it a systematic defense.

I’m going to defend philosophy in three ways, because I tend to hear three major criticisms of it and because the number three is nice. First, I’d like to try to show that philosophy is a distinct discipline: its role has not been usurped by science or religion or any other way of thinking. Second, I’d like to show that philosophy is useful or beneficial: it has done something for humanity instead of just throwing the same questions around and around, and at the same time it has grown with our communal knowledge. Third, I’d like to show that philosophy is useful as an academic discipline. I have heard some people accept that “philosophy” (in a very ambiguous, way you live your life and how you feel about meaning kind of way) is certainly still alive, but that it does not deserve its status as an academic discipline. I’d like to address why philosophy still has a role in education.

To begin: philosophy is a distinct discipline. I have heard people say that philosophy has now been overtaken by science in terms of explaining the world, and by religion in terms of explaining meaning. To the contrary, philosophy is a distinct discipline that uses logic, rationality and reason to bring together how the world is and why it is such. Ludwig Wittgenstein defined the task of philosophy as “The logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a theory but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. The result of philosophy is not a number of “philosophical propositions”, but to make propositions clear. Philosophy should make clear and delimit sharply the thoughts which otherwise are, as it were, opaque and blurred” (Tractacus).

For the most part I’m going to ignore religion, because I believe it does not even come close to touching philosophy since their methods are so different (faith vs reason). So to focus on science: many scientists have recently been asserting that science will be able to tell us everything we need to know. Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape suggests that science can actually tell us about ethics and how we should live our lives. Stephen Hawking says that physics will tell us all about the nature of the world. However these thinkers are missing something important: all that science can do is tell us how things are, not how they should be. Paul Thagard directly addresses Stephen Hawking’s assertions about quantum theory: “Hawking and Mlodinow state these general claims as if they were consequences of quantum mechanics, which has had a huge amount of empirical support. But the claims are not consequences of quantum theory as such, only of particular philosophical interpretations, of which there are more than a dozen, all highly controversial. Physicists agree that quantum theory provides successful predictions, but there is much disagreement about how to understand that success”. (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hot-thought/201011/is-philosophy-dead). Science is an empirical field while philosophy is a rational field. In order for us to understand things like how we live, or how the world functions, we need to take the empirical data that science gives us and put it into a structure somehow. Philosophy is what gives us our structures. Scientists rely on philosophy thoughts and theories all the time, often without knowing it. The scientific method was originally a philosophical theory. This means that science and philosophy operate at different levels. Most often they are complementary: philosophy needs the data of science to verify and fill out its a priori, rational/logical claims, and science needs philosophy to help interpret the data that it brings us.What is important here though is that they are not doing the same thing. Once again to quote Wittgenstein “Philosophy limits the disputable sphere of natural science. It should limit the thinkable and thereby the unthinkable. It should limit the unthinkable from within through the thinkable”.

Let’s take Sam Harris as an example. Harris asserts that science can tell us about ethics because science is the best way to learn about human flourishing. The problem with that assertion is that Harris is already relying on an a priori philosophical structure: that what is good is human flourishing. There are other candidates for the good (what God says, that which you would want others to do to you, etc). It takes philosophy to be able to defend this assumption. Science is useful in fleshing it out, in understanding how it interacts with the world, in understanding what exactly human flourishing is, but science itself can’t tell us that human flourishing is a good thing (except perhaps on an evolutionary level, which is quite different from ethics). So philosophy is its own distinct discipline from science. Additionally there are a number of topics that most people wouldn’t even try to assert are covered elsewhere, namely ethics and aesthetics. These are fields particular to logic, rationality and reason because they are about the way things should be instead of how they are.

Moving on to my second point, philosophy is not dead because it has been extremely beneficial throughout history, helping human progress, and it can continue to be so (there is absolutely no evidence it has outworn its usefulness in terms of benefit to humanity). I have heard people suggest that philosophy, throughout all of history, has gotten nowhere. All it is is tossing questions back and forth and rephrasing the same kinds of answers without ever coming to conclusions. However there is evidence that philosophy has progressed. First and foremost, philosophy has allowed humanity to understand its paradigms and has given it the opportunity to switch its paradigms. In particular, I’m thinking of the fact that philosophy was a driving force behind the Enlightenment, most human rights movements, and the scientific method. Yeah, that’s a lot of awesome that philosophy has done. Philosophy has given us most of our major developments in ethics (Kant, Aristotle, Mill). When philosophy is at its best, someone comes along and can think rationally about the way we view the world right now, then shift that view. Most often these shifts have been spectacularly helpful. I see absolutely no evidence that we have shifted to the final and best paradigm. It is entirely possible (and probable) that a hundred or two hundred years down the road, we’ll have some new, great, philosophical thinker who will tip the scientific method on its head and completely change the way we view the world. If nothing else, we should continue to encourage philosophy for this.

Together with this, philosophy makes us more aware of the paradigms we are using, allows us to shift between paradigms to come to a full understanding of situations, and allows us to understand other people’s paradigms. By doing these things, we can be more tolerant of other people, more mentally flexible and simply more well-rounded. But finally, the reason I believe philosophy is most beneficial is because philosophy is often driven by the quest for a good life. We have no other discipline whose core questions are things like “what should I do”, “who should I be”, “what is good”. These are important questions, and even if we do not gain concrete answers from philosophy, simply asking them, thinking deeply about them, clarifying the questions and exploring different viewpoints does lead to a better life. Philosophy is concerned with the well-being of humanity.

My final area of defense is philosophy as an academic discipline. Up until this point, everything that I have defended could just be a kind of folk philosophy: as long as we think about the big questions, discuss them to some extent and read some of the major works of philosophy, we’re doing fine. However I want to argue for more than that: philosophy as an academic discipline is still flourishing. First, I want to build on my above arguments: organized philosophy departments encourage the kinds of progress philosophy has made in the past. No past philosophical thinkers have arisen in a vacuum: they all read past philosophical thought, discussed with other great minds of their day, and were engaged in the larger academic dialogues that happened around them. Keeping philosophy as an academic discipline first gives students the resources and communal wisdom to understand past philosophy and second puts them into the stream of discourse that (to mix metaphors) forges good ideas. For the sake of good philosophy, keeping academic departments is important (this is not to say that good philosophers ONLY come from academia, but that having an academic background in philosophy certainly makes it easy to recognize certain currents, to get into the language of philosophers and to gain a voice in the discourse).

But to also argue from the opposite side, not only does school make good philosophers, but philosophers make good students and good workers. As a brief example, “Philosophy majors also score highest among disciplines in verbal reasoning and analytical writing on the GRE aptitude test” (http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/10/is-philosophy-the-most-practical-major/246763/). While the GRE is not the end all and be all of student performance, these two categories give us a good idea of where philosophy majors excel. For those people who still believe in a liberal arts education, a philosophy major will get you pretty far. Philosophy teaches a person how to think about an argument, analyze, synthesize and think across disciplines. Practically, philosophy majors are very popular for law schools and other grad programs because schools know that a philosophy major knows how to construct an argument that is strong, sound and logical. In the workforce, a philosophy major is a problem solver. Logic can get you through most new situations. As Edward Tenner asserts, “it also is a tool (like history and religious studies) for thinking about everything else, and every profession from law and medicine to motorcycle maintenance”. Philosophy teaches far more than wrote memorization, or even processes like math. Philosophy is at its base about understanding problems and solving those problems. That means it’s ideal for students who need to learn how to use their brains.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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