Thursday, November 20, 2008

Philosophy

It appears to be World Philosophy Day. Who knew?  I've never been able to decide whether I actually care about philosophy as it is conventionally defined. Much of it seems to consist of fantastically elaborate justifications for amazingly banal opinions. And, as the questions in the linked article demonstrate, there's also a nasty streak of futile cleverness - alarming simple folk with what are, in fact, mere games and misleading ones at that. Yet philosophy does, at its best, clarify and promote a healthy scepticism. Since it draws (or should draw) no final conclusions - a conclusion in the sense of a fact would not be philosophy but science - it makes us aware that inconclusiveness is very deeply embedded in our language and, therefore, our natures. Only people who understand this are worth knowing and so, perhaps, only philosophers are worth knowing, though such people are seldom philosophers by profession. Anyway, happy World Inconclusiveness Day. I think.

34 comments:

  1. The fact that you think science ought lead to conclusive answers shows that maybe not focusing on philosophy was a wise life decision for you

    ReplyDelete
  2. Speaking as an amateur philosopher, thanks, I guess. In fairness, though, without philosophers, it would be much harder to bother theologians on a purely theoretical level, which is at least a somewhat important thing to be able to do. But yes: if we worried more about science and less about philosophy, things would probably still be okay.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "..there's also a nasty streak of futile cleverness - alarming simple folk with what are, in fact, mere games and misleading ones at that."

    This perhaps why philosophy - as a mature disposition - has not taken hold. It's oft times seen by common folk as a battle of wit. Rather than a serious form of inquiry.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Anonymous: And what would philosophers say to someone who responds to a thoughtful question on an important subject with glib snarkiness?

    -----

    "Much of it seems to consist of fantastically elaborate justifications for amazingly banal opinions"

    I think that pretty much sums up a lot of what philosophy has been recently, but definitely not all. In reality, philosophy should be something like the opposite: turning what we normally think of as complex, elaborate parts of the human condition and distilling them into their purest form via language.

    As an aside, I have to say my main experience with people who've actually studied philosophy has been when I tell them I had an existential epiphany and they responded: "That's actually what [blank] said in [blank]." And there the conversation usually dies.

    ReplyDelete
  5. What if people actually read the Thought Experiment blog before commenting on it? I believe he said philosophy is NOT a science, since it can't actually reach conclusions. Most of the time. Or at least not always. Or so it would seem.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Marvellous comment overheard on Radio 4 last night about Lyndon Johnson. He was handed a speech to deliver that went 'As Socrates once said...' He crossed out Socrates and wrote over it 'My Grandaddy...' So, you see, philosophers have their uses.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I think the point that needs to be made is that science does not draw ultimate conclusions. It provides with an approximation of truth, but makes no claim of finding actual truth. Induction can get you 99.999...% of the way to truth, but it can never close that gap.

    That's not to say that science isn't useful (I'm a biochemist), but it would be useful if the doubt inherent in science was more widely understood.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I find a lot of philosophy are really just tricks with words and logic. There is really nothing in the four questions on the BBC site that will make your brain hurt once you work out the trick. For example in question 2 - "Yet one person cannot be in two places at once.", the obvious answer is, "who says you can't in that thought experiment?" The conclusion in that question is simply bizarre. If that is the best philosophers can do, then they should quit their job.

    ReplyDelete
  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  10. hzh, what exactly is the 'trick' in the first question which is a question about ethical beliefs which doesn't really have a 'correct' answer? Or the third question which is about the limits of what we can really know and the reliability of our senses?

    Philosophy is not all word games. It had a lot more influence in the past perhaps. There are reasons why we still remember Socrates, Descartes, and Marx among others.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Bierce correctly defined it as "A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing".

    ReplyDelete
  12. 'Philosophy', and the idea of a 'philosopher' as someone with access to the highest levels of wisdom, is trading on past glories.

    From the 17th to the 19th centuries, philosophy was indeed the discipline that oversaw all others, and the 'philosopher' had to be a master of both the humanities and the sciences to claim its mantle.

    During the late 19th century, however, other disciplines emerged that offered substantive insights into philosophical questions: psychology, sociology etc. The response of philosophy, in an increasingly academic milieu, was to narrow its field of enquiry to ever more abstract and abstruse questions.

    As a result, 'philosophy' today is a very attenuated and emasculated discipline that stuggles to engage with meaningful questions that are now pursued with far more credibility in other ways.

    ReplyDelete
  13. is anybody not a philosopher?

    the only philosophy I know is aris means arse.

    ReplyDelete
  14. "For poetry makes nothing happen; it survives/ In the valley of its making where executives/ Would never want to tamper, flows on south/ From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,/ Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth.
    -Auden

    What does one want/expect philosophy to do? It does not do. I do, or you do, or we do, but philosophy does not do anything. It is created by us, naturally. Science is the learning of hard and fast laws. Philosophy is not learning laws, but creating ideas, and experiencing the world better and deeper and in more ways. One cannot judge philosophy like a movie, say it used to be good but went wrong somewhere. To judge philosophy is to judge one's self, as what one knows of philosophy and the philosophy one ascribes to are reliant on what one has done and what one does and how one sees those things.

    ReplyDelete
  15. You write: "As the questions in the linked article demonstrate, there's also a nasty streak of futile cleverness - alarming simple folk with what are, in fact, mere games and misleading ones at that."

    First, I'm not sure why you attribute to philosophers the goal of "alarming simple folk." Most of them are well aware that only other philosophers read their work.

    Second, how are the puzzles considered in the article misleading? Certainly there are some philosophical arguments that have an air of chicanery about them (e.g. Anselm's argument, which derives the conclusion that God exists from the phrase "the thing than which nothing more powerful can be conceived"), but it is generally agreed that the puzzles in the article are actually challenging metaphysical issues. Sure, some of them are basically of purely scholastic interest (e.g. whether we should embrace some sort of global skepticism, and whether we have free will is true), but the answers to two of them -- what ethical theory we should adopt and what makes someone a person -- have some practical implications. Are the thought experiments considered weird? Yes, but in order to isolate the proposition they're trying to test philosophers need to consider some contrived scenarios (compare what scientists do -- rolling frictionless little carts down inclined planes).

    As a general rule, when someone complains that a philosophical puzzle is misleading, especially if he doesn't explain how it is misleading, it is safe to assume that he just finds the whole enterprise annoying and wants it to go away. But that is no problem with philosophy, that is a limitation of the complainant.

    ReplyDelete
  16. The greatest living philosopher is of course the mighty Alain de Botton. I am so glad people keep commissioning articles, books and TV shows from him. They are not banal in any way, shape or form. No, they are very profound. In fact, I once read something by him that made such a deep imprint on my consciousness it actually took a whole three seconds to evaporate, instead of the usual two.

    ReplyDelete
  17. The Mark character in Peep Show considers a wrist band at one stage with 'What would de Botton do?' written on it.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Sorry, but I think it's pretty lame to make uninformed comments like this. For example: "Much of it seems to consist of fantastically elaborate justifications for amazingly banal opinions."

    The same could be said for physics: 'general relativity theory consists of fantastically elaborate justifications for the amazingly banal opinion that objects fall to the ground.' Or: "Higher order mathematics consists of fantastically elaborate justifications for the amazingly banal opinion that 2 + 2 = 4'.

    I wish people would stop dismissing philosophy as if they knew anything about it. Philosophy is just as technical, just as sophisticated, and just as important as any other discipline, but for some reason, everyone thinks they're an expert. You're not. Go to school.

    ReplyDelete
  19. "there's also a nasty streak of futile cleverness - alarming simple folk with what are, in fact, mere games and misleading ones at that."

    Descartes is the epitome of this, studying him has almost destroyed my interest in the subject.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Philosophy is that which everyone practices, and each person's philosophy is indicative of them. If some philosophy seems to involve chicanery and duplicitous word use, it's reflective of that person's philosophy.

    I think education in philosophy is essential for learning critical thinking skills, and whether those skills are applied in philosophy or in other fields, there are very few people who'd say they are detrimental. Philosophy is critical thinking, in a way.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Your site is still buggy. About three of these comments get cut off in mid-sentence -- at least on my screen.

    Oddly, this is the second time today I've seen this article. My teenage son has BBC News as his homepage and he told me it was World Philosophy Day. He pointed out the article and said, "Interesting questions, but such a badly written article." Of course now I see it was written by a professor and not a professional journalist, which may be why!

    ReplyDelete
  22. As a result, 'philosophy' today is a very attenuated and emasculated discipline that stuggles to engage with meaningful questions that are now pursued with far more credibility in other ways.

    Have you read any of the work that's been published in the last hundred years, or are you just assuming people stopped writing once new fields developed? Cause it's all well and good that there are more ways to think about the world, but philosophy has grown with leaps and bounds alongside these new ideas.

    It's also directly relevant to every complex issue we face, whether you're aware of it or not. To take a few examples: work in bioethics and medical ethics helps determine our approach to life and health; epistemological questions raised by the progress of science and technology often cannot be answered within the disciplines themselves, so are challenged and re-challenged in philosophy; and scientifically inspired, philosophically articulated frameworks provide the primary coherent alternative to traditional religious ontology.

    Many of the people who do this work are professional philosophers, but everyone who pays attention engages with these sorts of problems. And in general, the philosophers I've known have been able to give the most thoughtfully incomplete answers to any question.

    It's also worth noting that half of the neuroscience papers out there quote Quine, Chomsky or Davidson, and most those that don't probably should. Sure, we have disciplines to study all sorts of things now – but where do you think they got their research programs? How do you think they analyze their results, once the take a step back? To study science without at least some philosophical background is to fail to understand the breadth of the issues at hand.

    As for all this talk about cleverness and banality, I side with banality. If there's one thing that even a brief practice of philosophy demonstrates, it's that it can be very difficult to see the most obvious truths. And just because a point looks stupid on paper doesn't mean that the process of reaching it wasn't the whole point.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Egad- seems as though philosophers are almost as sensitive as Transhumanists.

    ReplyDelete
  24. At least the trannies are colourfull, unlike philosophy, boring in the extreme. What exactly does it do again? Plumbing now, that actually achieves something.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Vernon has it exactly. They don't like it up 'em. And boy are they long-winded.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Of no apparent use, but as Heraclitus wrote, an unapparent connection is stronger than an apparent connection.

    Been reading Wittgenstein's Blue & Brown Books and note how apposite much of it is to, e.g. modern psychology (i studied Psychology BSc for a year), Artificial Intelligence; i'm sure as i progress more connections will emerge. A single sentence in the right place can do a great deal. i see philosophy, along with other much-despised arts, e.g. poetry, as being like delayed action bombs, whose effects are unpredictable but by no means negligible. Of course, when i say 'philosophy' i don't mean academic lice and populist scoundrels, i mean the real investigators, e.g. Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Heraclitus, etc. etc.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Ha! Never fails, that one...

    ReplyDelete
  28. The deification of science is a real concern. I mean this is basic, scientists especially seem to understand the limits inherently placed on their research. Yet people outside the field treat it as "hard and fast" truth. This is problematic in the extreme. Is the earth the center of the universe, flat, surrounded by crystalline heavenly bodies, ruled only by newtonian physics? The list goes on. At some point past failures and the understanding that sense perception is not in and of itself TRUTH should lead us to treat science with respect not as post-modernity's godhead. We can have a discussion if math is really the language of the universe or if it is only a man made tool. But really, this is why maybe normal folks feel intimidated by philosophers... because they're not all that bright.

    ReplyDelete
  29. To be fair on ordinary folk, philosophers are often nutters whom one would do well to flee.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Didn’t Wittgenstein say that philosophy was about finding bad reasons for what we know already?

    Not that this would make philosophy pointless. Sometimes we need reasons for what we know already, and sometimes the best reasons anyone can see are pretty poor, as reasons.

    Spinoza? Read the whole of the Ethics once. Just thought I’d mention that, as the right to say so is about the only profit I got out of it.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Egad- seems as though philosophers are almost as sensitive as Transhumanists.

    Haha! If only I were a philosopher, you'd have a good point. But no, I just know a number of them.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Introduce a website to all like to play online game people, in this website can buy the tibia gold, if you want tobuy tibia gold, you can come here, do you know this website had how many customers, in here you only need spend a little money then can buy much cheap tibia gold, do not doubt, quickly to come here then to buy the tibia gp.

    ReplyDelete