Does Philosophy Matter?

Okay so the question beckons a philosophical point of view to answer it, which makes it undermine itself. But let’s not go there.

 

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And I don’t mean to write a self-congratulatory post about how important philosophy is, even though no one knows it. That’s also a downward spiral.

I ask this question even though I do think I know the answer (obviously it matters a hell of a lot to me), but that doesn’t mean I want to hear everyone say, “Philosophy rocks my face off! Yay!” Because I know this isn’t true for most people. I want to hear the truth. Surprise surprise. And it would be great to hear from people who don’t consider themselves philosophical, to hear a real honest reason for why it’s such a turn off. I promise I won’t hate you. On the contrary, any dissenting non-philosophical voices will be thoroughly coddled.

Well, okay. Maybe not. But I won’t hate you. Let’s start there.

So I’ve been reading Plato at the Googleplex by Rebecca Goldstein and at the beginning of her book, she addresses this very question. Her point of view on most matters having to do with philosophy and Plato are creepily similar to mine, but I won’t go there either. I want to hear your interpretation. Here’s a quote (get through it, it’s worth it):

 

The casual equating of philosophy with topics on the fringe, emptily speculated upon, can pass unremarked in scientific circles. Like most prejudices, this one is usually not reasoned out, although sometimes it is. Sometimes a scientist is willing to stand up and bravely defend the claim that philosophy is worthless. “Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then ‘natural philosophy’ became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads,” Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist who writes popular science books, told an interviewer. “Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, ‘those who can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.’ And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics whatsoever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension [between philosophy and science] occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.”

 

Goldstein goes on to explain why scientists with this point of view are really doing philosophy, even though they don’t realize it, which is pretty much the point I made earlier about how questioning whether philosophy counts is self-negating.

But the truth is, most people think philosophy doesn’t count, and they don’t question their belief about the matter philosophically, so their stance is really not self-negating. They just ignore it the way I ignore sports and obnoxious children (in so far as the latter is possible).

The unspoken premise throughout Goldstein’s book that I find fascinating is that progress is the measuring stick of what matters (I haven’t finished the book, so I’ll have to keep my comment tentative). I’ve never had this outlook on philosophy. The very first line of her book is:

 

A book devoted to a particular thinker often presumes that thinker got everything right. I don’t think this is true of Plato. Plato got about as much wrong as we would expect from a philosopher who lived 2,400 years ago. Were this not the case, then philosophy, advancing our knowledge not at all, would be useless. I don’t think it’s useless, so I’m quite happy to acknowledge how mistaken or confused Plato can often strike us.

 

The first thought that ran through my mind when I read this was, “Uh oh. This book is not for me.” I actually said to myself, “So, what, exactly, did Plato get wrong?”

This is where I would insert an LOL if I were that kind of person.

The second thought that ran through my mind was that her reasoning had to be one of the informal fallacies…historical fallacy maybe? Something like that. I can’t remember.

In any case, I never thought philosophy had the same agenda as the natural sciences because the natural sciences study the world in an inductive way, which is to say they must constantly gather empirical data and constantly construct theories to make sense of that data. Philosophy might not make much progress at all, and we shouldn’t expect or demand it to in the way we would the natural sciences.

In other words, (I realize I’ve already lost my non-philosophical audience, so I’m hoping for redemption here) physics and such…all that we call simply ‘science’ now…looks at the world and makes observations. Philosophy doesn’t, at least not in the same way. It’s bound to feel a bit incestuous in philosophy because those age-old questions that keep us awake at night are the same for all time:

Why are we here?

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Does God exist?

Do I have a soul?

Or I am just a bunch of matter with dopamine levels and neurons [insert real scientific knowledge here] determining whether or not I say something rude? (Shout out to the ladies. We know what it’s like to be reduced to PMS.)

How do I live a good life?

How do I live a moral life?

What is love?

What is happiness and how do I get some?

Etc.

I think some of these questions have been answered, at least to my satisfaction (and I grant that that may not be enough). Once a question like the ones above have been answered, doesn’t that mean there’s no further progress on the matter?

I know we like to say, “It’s the journey, not the destination.” But to hell with it. I’m the one in the backseat crying, “Are we there yet?”

What do you think? Does philosophy matter? Does it make progress? If so, why? If not, why? Does it matter whether it makes progress?

Or, if you are so inclined, why is philosophy boring?

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20 thoughts on “Does Philosophy Matter?

  1. With regards to science I like how you say its ‘inductive’, much of it indeed is. Likewise, you mentioned that scientists “constantly gather empirical data and constantly construct theories to make sense of that data”, this is also true, but only to an extent. In Thomas Kuhn’s ‘Scientific Revolution’, he states that scientists at first try to reconcile conflicting data with the current ‘paradigm’ (accepted set of theories), only once they have a good reason to show that their current paradigm is not compatible with the vast amount of data do they switch paradigms, this is called a scientific revolution. You can see this from Newton to Einstein and from Einstein to Quantum Physics.

    Most scientists don’t even realize this paradigm (not Kuhn’s ‘paradigm’ per se). It is only in philosophy of science that we try to understand exactly what science is, how it works and how we can, if at all, differentiate it from pseudo-science.

    Scientists however see science in the same way religious people see faith, as an unassailable topic. This could not be more far from the truth. Both of those topics are equally open to debate. Although at heart I am a scientist – I was hesitant to question science also – it needs to be questioned. Only by questioning can we possibly understand why we believe something. If we don’t, its not really our belief is it?

    Scientists are ‘rational’ thinkers, they claim objectivity, open-mindedness and sober discussion. In doing so they should be open to questions on how science works, what makes science science, and why should science be believed.

    I love your topics, and you are an excellent writer. keep up the good work

    – Steven Umbrello – The Leather Library Blog & The Diogenes Society

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  2. Steven,

    Thanks for commenting! I’m so glad I found your blog. Now I have hope that there are people interested in these topics.

    Also, thanks for bringing up Kuhn.

    For those interested in how scientific theories work, Thomas Kuhn is the author to read. I took a philosophy of science course in which we read the Copernican Revolution, and this really opened my eyes to a lot of misconceptions I held about the way science works. (But it wasn’t as if I had a lot of authoritative conceptions to begin with).

    “In Thomas Kuhn’s ‘Scientific Revolution’, he states that scientists at first try to reconcile conflicting data with the current ‘paradigm’ (accepted set of theories), only once they have a good reason to show that their current paradigm is not compatible with the vast amount of data do they switch paradigms, this is called a scientific revolution.”

    In the Copernican Revolution, the impetus for change went even deeper than paradigm compatibility. The empirical data around Copernicus’ time actually DID fit the Ptolemaic model, the geocentric model, but it did so in an inelegant way, with epicycles to account for retrograde motion of the planets. Here’s a picture of what that looked like:

    http://www.physics.hku.hk/~nature/notes/lectures/chap04.html

    So here we have two competing models, paradigms, competing neck to neck. Neither can be discounted for inability to account for observations and data. However, one does so elegantly while the other does so inelegantly, but preserves our sense of dignity in the universe. Not only does Copernicus’ model LOOK better, it also imitates a living organism in that the planets are interconnected. You can’t just throw an epicycle on there when you discover something new.

    A real dilemma, it must have been. Do we let our world views be overthrown by this more elegant heliocentric model?

    Later, with Galileo and Kepler, it became clear that the heliocentric model really did account for things better, with a few changes to it along the way (since there were more things to account for), but before then there was this interesting time of philosophical and spiritual uproar.

    Steven, I admire that you have a scientific background and a philosophical disposition as well. I think these qualities are necessary to be one of those scientists who really shake things up. I confess, I don’t have the mathematical wherewithal to follow the science well. Even in Kuhn’s book, I found myself skipping over the really technical stuff, unless it pertained directly to the paper I was working on.

    When I look up at the stars, I find myself at the center of the universe. I think: “To hell with it. I’m inside of a giant basketball. The north star is where someone’s finger is, and that’s the axis on which everything’s spinning. The stars are holes punched out of a black, construction paper surface, and on the other side is nothing but light.”

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  3. I’m also someone with a scientific training who takes an interest in philosophy. An interest in big questions is what led me to Physics in the first place. Nevertheless I struggle with the idea that Philosophy doesn’t need to make progress. I actually hate that idea! Philosophy is too important to be a mere academic exercise in thinking. Questions such as “Why is there something rather than nothing?” are obviously (?) of fundamental importance to our lives.

    Can I pick up on a comment you made? You wrote that Philosophy doesn’t make observations of the world. I think it absolutely does. How could you ask a question like “Why is there something rather than nothing?” unless you had already observed that there is, in fact, something? It’s an empirical observation. But you’re not going to discover the answer by sitting in a chair thinking about it. You need to make further observations and find out what kind of “something” there is. That’s what science does. Eventually (I hope) science will lead us to the point where we fully understand the nature of the “something” and can final answer questions like, “Why is it here?” and “Where did it come from?” until then, we are just guessing, which is why, perhaps, some areas of Philosophy make no progress.

    In other branches of Philosophy, progress is possible, but if all you are doing is throwing out ideas for other philosophers to teach each other, then I don’t see the point. And remember – I’m a fan of philosophy!

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    • Thanks for checking out my blog, Steve!

      I suppose I’m giving away some of my ‘rationalist’ tendencies. In other words, I’m really into sitting in chairs.

      I’m about to catch a flight, but I’ll return to post a reply.

      Tina

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      • Hi Steve,

        I understand the desire for progress. I think it makes a lot of sense to want that for all fields, but here’s why I think philosophy is different, and why our expectations of it should be different:

        Philosophy makes some progress in certain ways, but the kind of progress it may make is not comparable to that made in science, nor should it be. The reason is because philosophy’s foundations are constantly being overturned. Scientists, on the other hand, have a community and certain assumptions upon which they can all rely, so that disagreements amongst them are formulated in the context of a relatively stable background.

        Now there are probably loads of people who will disagree with me about the lack of a background in philosophy, but I think they probably have to exclude a lot of philosophies in order to maintain that there’s an agreed upon foundation.

        I realize my emphasis on inductive vs. deductive methodology was a bit misguided. My point was muddied here.

        So now I’m straying from the original post, switching my argument quite a bit. I should have just been clear in the first place!

        Thanks again for commenting and forcing me to reevaluate.

        Tina

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  4. “And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science.”
    Well, the funny thing is that one could say the same about most areas of physics as well. Who is reading cosmology or particle physics papers? Other cosmologists or particle physicists. Does it have much impact outside its area? Well, I don’t think so. It is also unfair because the philosophy of science as applied to physics is relatively simple. Things are getting thornier in more complex sciences, but Mr. Kraus obviously choose physics because he liked simplicity. (Nothing against him personally, I used to enjoy his columns in Scientific American).

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    • I’ll agree that that stuff is pretty esoteric. I just read a few posts over at Mike Smith’s blog about the Tegmark’s Mathematical Universe Hypothesis…I doubt there are too many people outside the scientific community who can understand such stuff (I certainly can’t):

      http://selfawarepatterns.com/2014/04/21/tegmarks-mathematical-universe-hypothesis/

      The only thing is, the non-scientist is more likely to pay lip-service to science because some part of it produces technological results. Philosophy doesn’t have such concrete evidence of its benefits (not in such a material way at least), so it constantly needs to justify itself to the world.

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      • Cosmology has a blurred and murky border with metaphysics and Tegmark’s idea is way behind that border. That is good old metaphysics in its pre-Kantian way. I would not say it is still cosmology in the scientific sense. I think it is a new twist to Platonism. The problem is that it leads to no predictions that can be tested empirically. It might be that way, but there might be something else on the deepest level of reality. The problem is that some of the physicists coming up with such stuff are philosophically naive. Nothing bad about such theories but one should apply philosophy of science to them to see on which side of the border they are. Where exactly the border is is open to debate and in the course of the history of science, it has been shifted outwards several times, but there is a point beyond which we will not able to move. The amount of information coming in from outer space is limited. Some insight can be gained from particle physics because only some models are consistent with what is known from particle physics about the properties of matter, but that discipline is itself running against a border because the deeper you investigate, the more energy is needed and there are technical, economical and political constraints on how big the devices used for the research can get (and the political questions, about how much money a society is willing to invest to find out and if other things, including other areas of research, are not more important) lead you right back into philosophy.

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        • I just ordered Tegmark’s book after reading some of these theories. It sounds like there’s a mathematical basis for his theories, but if as you say they are not falsifiable, that could pose a problem.

          In any case, I wonder if I’ll even be able to make sense of it. I was just telling someone that Kantian space-time seems so intuitive to me (no pun intended) that I have a hard time thinking of space as something to be studied in a scientific way, as something other than our a priori form of outer intuition. We’ll see how I do with it!

          Plus I lack the math background to appreciate such theories on that level, unfortunately.

          I’ll keep in mind what you say about the borders of science and metaphysics as I’m reading the book (if I ever get around to reading it! I’m moving slowly these days.)

          Yes, good point about the money. I think it’s true that science is directed by political forces in that way to some degree. So much money is needed to do science. That’s why we should all just stick with philosophy. All you need there is a good comfortable chair. 🙂

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          • I have only read a little bit about Tegmark. What I understand is that he starts with the notion that mathematical statements are true independent of us. In this view, mathematical objects actually exists (what is normally described as a platonic view of maths). Secondly, if our universe has a mathematical description, it could just be such a mathematical object. So all consistent mathematical objects are what exists and some of them describe universes with time and events etc. and in some those, we observers eventually find ourselves. It is an extreme version of a multiverse theory. It is an interesting attempt to explain why there is anything at all and not nothing, and why nature seems to be describable in terms of maths.
            So simple objects like spheres, cubes, the number 5 etc. just exist and also our universe, which is a complex mathematical object.
            Hm, maybe, maybe not. How does he want to proove it? As long as physicists see hope to find a unified mathematical description of our universe, this view might be possible. But the universe may just as well the creation of a god or an ordered area in a total chaos. It is an interesting idea, but it is metaphysics. The border between science and metaphysics can be shifted to some extent, but I think this theory will remain on the other side.

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  5. My father got a history of philosophy from one of his friends, who was very interested in it. The friend hat written into the book (with a deliberate misspelling): “Dear Svend, Fillesofy is very important! This wishes you, yours truly Goetz!”

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  6. In science, you can do without philosophy as long as you are in “normal science” mode in the Khunian sense. If you are running into a crisis with your normal paradigm, you will need some reflection on what you are doing. In areas where complete and consistent descriptions are not possible, you will need philosophical thinking all the time (psychology, cultural studies of all kinds, history etc.). In a way, these scientists are the ones who shy away from the real complexity of such areas. They choose an area where you have nice computational methods. You can do something like chemistry for a lifetime without a need for the smallest bit of philosophy, but you cannot do that in more complex areas where you need permanent reflection of your methods and of your reflection.

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  7. Coming late to the party :P.

    I love philosophy, but sympathize with its critics. Most people expect progress and correct answers. To them, philosophy either makes no progress, provides wrong answers, or creates the so-called problems it then tries to solve. Worse, many philosophers with outdated views are still treated as relevant.

    The average person then sees fields like science making progress, even in areas once considered philosophical. Sometimes, these areas were never philosophical, but only seemed so because of philosophers’ category mistakes, which in turn can make the more cynical question the self-serving claim of specifically philosophical arguments.

    So why study philosophy?

    For me, it’s for the effect it has on me. The methods of philosophy and the confrontation with deep questions give me a different way of looking at things and a different way of being. This in turn changes the character of my experience. Given that the quality of my life IS the character of my experience, I can’t imagine anything more important than shaping that experience.

    Bertrand Russell’s chapter on “Why Study Philosophy?” in his book “The Problems of Philosophy” makes the argument for philosophy better than I do. I also think Josef Pieper’s “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” and “The Philosophical Act” (both usually available in the same book) are an interesting rumination on the role of philosophy in life.

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