Thursday, 15 May 2014

Why Philosophy is important

If an individual never thinks philosophically, never questions his existence, what the world is about, what justifies certain moral stances and other philosophical questions, then what will determine his beliefs in such things?  Presumably the prevailing beliefs of his culture.  He will trust what he considers to be the most intelligent peoples' stance on such issues.  These are likely to be people in the higher echelons of academia, and especially what scientists say.

Hence, for example, he is likely to accept that he is merely a sophisticated biological robot with no free will, that science can in principle tell us everything about the world, and indeed everything else.  He might even accept that there are no objective morals -- that they are merely an expression of emotions, or they merely reflect psychological truths about the way human beings happen to be.

In that case, by not thinking for himself, he is merely absorbing the common wisdom of his culture. This is highly undesirable for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that those who rise to the top in the academic community are liable to express views consonant with the prevailing orthodoxy -- for if they do not then they will be less likely to have risen to such a position in the first place.  So certain beliefs about the world tend to be perpetuated, not necessarily because of their underlying merits, but because there are influences actively discouraging the expression of views which are at variance with generally accepted beliefs.   Since the prevailing common wisdom is both rather bleak and also, it seems to me, profoundly wrong, this surely cannot be desirable (I hope to address the question of why I believe it to be profoundly wrong with a future blog entry on scientism).

Secondly it is of benefit to be able to understand underlying philosophical issues in and of its own sake. This has the benefit not only of hopefully obtaining a greater understanding of our underlying beliefs about ourselves and the world and other philosophical issues, it also is helpful in developing our critical thinking skills which can be applied in many other aspects of our lives.

And a final brief word on the benefits of  philosophy to science.  It was Richard Feynman who is alleged to have said:  “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”   I agree that this will be true for the average scientist, certainly.  But the truly great scientist who hopes to revolutionalize the way we view reality, must break out of orthodox ways of thinking and truly understand all the philosophical ramifications of competing revolutionary scientific hypotheses. With that in mind perhaps it might be more accurate to say philosophy of science is about as useful to the average scientist as knowing about how the engine works is to the average car driver.  But what if your car keeps breaking down? What if the car accelerates when you hit the brakes? Or turns right when you steer left?

Update 26/12/14

I found this link.  The video there can also be found on youtube here.  An excellent video which I'm in entire agreement with.  In the event the links become broken in the future, here is the transcript of the video:

"From a distance, philosophy seems weird, irrelevant, boring — and yet, also, a just a little intriguing. But what are philosophers really for?
The answer is, handily, already contained in the word philosophy itself.
In Ancient Greek, philo means “love” and sophia means “wisdom” — philosophers are people devoted to wisdom. Being wise means attempting to live and die well.
In their pursuit of wisdom, philosophers have developed a very specific skill set — they have, over the centuries, become experts at many of the things that made people not very wise. Five stand out.
  2. There are lots of big questions: What’s the meaning of life? What’s a job for? How should society be arranged? Most of us entertain them every now and then, but we despair at trying to answer them. They are the status of almost a joke — we call them “pretentious” — but they matter deeply, because only with sound answers to them can we direct our energies meaningfully.
    They have, over the centuries, asked the very largest. They realize that these questions can always be broken down into more manageable chunks, and that the only really “pretentious” thing is to think one’s above raising naive-sounding inquiries.
  4. Public opinion, or what gets called “common sense,” is sensible and reasonable in countless areas. It’s what you hear about from friends and neighbors — the stuff you take in without even thinking about it. But common sense is often also full of daftness and error. Philosophy gets us to admit all aspects of common sense to reason. It wants us to think for ourselves. Is it really true what people say about love, money, children, travel, work?
    Philosophers are interested in asking whether an idea is logical, rather than assuming it must be right because it’s popular and long established.
  6. We are not very good at knowing what goes on in our own minds. Someone we meet is very annoying but we can’t pin down what the issue is; we lose our temper but we can’t readily tell what we’re so cross about — we lack insights into our own satisfactions and dislikes. That’s why we need to examine our own minds.
    Philosophy is committed to self-knowledge and its central precept, articulated by the earliest, greatest philosopher Socrates, is just two words long: “Know yourself.”
  8. We’re not very good at making ourselves happy. We overrate the power of some things to improve our lives and underrate others — we make the wrong choices because, guided by advertising and false glamor, we keep on imagining that a particular kind of holiday or car or computer will make a bigger difference than it can. At the same time, we underestimate the contribution of other things, like going for a walk, which may have little prestige but which can contribute deeply to the character of existence.
    Philosophers seek to be wise by getting more precise about the activities and attitudes that really can help our lives to go better.
  10. Philosophers are good at keeping a sense of what really matters and what doesn’t. On hearing the news that he’d lost all his possessions to a shipwreck, the Stoic philosopher Zeno simple said, “fortune commands me to be a less encumbered philosopher.” It’s responses like these that have made the very term “philosophical” a byword for calm, long-term thinking and strength of mind. In short, for perspective.
The wisdom of philosophy is in modern times mostly delivered in the form of books. But, in the past, philosophers sat in market squares and discussed their ideas with shopkeepers or went into government offices and palaces to give advice. It wasn’t abnormal to have a philosopher on your payroll. Philosophy was thought of as a normal, basic activity, rather than as an esoteric, optional extra. Nowadays, it’s not so much that we overtly deny this thought, but we just don’t have the right institutions set up to promulgate wisdom coherently in the world.
In the future, though, when the value of philosophy is a little clearer, we can expect to meet more philosophers in daily life. They won’t be locked up, living mainly in university departments — because the points at which our unwisdom bites and messes up our lives are multiple and urgently need attention, right now".

1 comment:

  1. Feynman has a point of course - just as the theory of the scientific method doesn't really correspond to how science actually occurs on a day to day basis.

    However, on a larger scale, the clashes that occur between groups and worldviews does require a stance 'outside of itself' to help provide insight and resolve matters, an awareness of how things haven't really been happening as one assumed they were. Philosophy is the 'meta' that helps us manage and understand the endeavour as a whole, just as a knowledge of the true history of science (and, say, the mystical leanings of many of the big scientists of the early 20th Century) and how it has gradually become more of a case of 'technological development' effort than the 'natural philosophy' approach that it was (in many areas), helps us retain a context within which to view progress.

    Paul Feyerabend's take, for instance, helps us be wary of the sneaky assumptions we might be making about the structure of progress and the nature of theories. Etc.