On The Supposed Irrelevance of Philosophy to Most People (Defending Philosophy)

In this series, I am replying to common objections to philosophy. At least for now, I am going to do this by answering some of the comments objecting to philosophy which I have gotten in response to my posts Jerry Coyne’s Scientistic Dismissiveness Of Philosophy and Defending Philosophy 1: A Reply To Dr. Coyne. Specifically these posts were about Coyne’s presumptuous decision to denounce a research project approved by professional philosophers on the grounds that, though being a biologist and not himself a philosopher, he thought the synopsis of the project amounted to gobbledygook, pseudo-philosophy, and theology. The project in question involved researching the philosophy of William of Ockham—one of the greatest philosophers of all time—on the topic of divine foreknowledge, in part to see what relevance Ockham’s categories might have for the contemporary philosophical discussions of time and of causation.  My post backed up a philosophy blogger who writes as “Verbose Stoic”. In that post, I rejected Coyne’s idea that since there was no God at all, research into Ockham’s theory of divine foreknowledge had nothing to do with real knowledge. On this I wrote:

Verbose Stoic explains why Coyne is missing the point. In short, it does not matter whether there actually is a God. There is still philosophical illumination from exploring the implications of a hypothetical omniscient knower for our understanding of things like the connections between belief, causation, and time.

In reply, New England Bob wrote:

Talk about missing the point! Coyne talks about what 99.9999999% of people care about. Verbose Stoic might as well be fourteen galaxies over, because hardly anyone cares about the kind of things modern philosophy delves into. I get headaches trying to understand some of it. I will go as far as Daniel Dennett goes, and even his writings are no picnic to decode.

Sorry, but to me and a lot of people, philosophy does not matter.

In reply, I first want to say that the test of whether an academic project is worthwhile is hardly whether 99.9999999% care about its direct findings. I don’t care at all about anything that theoretical mathematicians are working on right now. This does not delegitimize their endeavors. It does not mean that their findings will never have implications that will never trickle down to my layman’s life. It does not give me the right, in the meantime, to denounce the mathematicians doing this seemingly (from my point of view) completely boring work.  It does not give me the intellectual authority to determine that any one or another of their proposals are “gobbledygook” with no possible potential bearing, ever, on anything interesting. My ignorance of theoretical math is my problem, not the mathematicians’ and if I am a properly humble person, who understands my intellectual limitations, I will not use my ignorance of mathematics as a basis for criticizing the mathematical judgments of mathematicians.

Now, as it turns out, New England Bob is wrong about the mainstream irrelevance of the topic of the project under discussion. The philosophy of God is a topic of unusual mainstream interest. For example, New England Bob himself is here at an atheist blog. So he quite likely does care about the question of whether or not there is a God. Examining that question adequately involves, in part, developing a coherent account of what we mean (or could mean) by God. This involves developing various implications of various possible concepts of God. It means working out the possible implications of various metaphysical accounts of how a God (or gods) could be conceived to relate to the world. This is necessary if we are to conclude that such a being does or does not exist, or to conclude whether it either possibly or impossibly, likely or unlikely, interacts with the world in the ways that religious believers think is possible.

If we are to be rationally justified as theists or as atheists, we need to analyze the metaphysical concepts of God for their internal coherency and for their plausibility. And especially while the overwhelming majority of English speaking people believe in the existence of some form of monotheistic deity or another, the question remains open enough for the minority of professional philosophers (roughly 16%) who either lean towards or accept theism to explore new avenues for defending potentially plausible God concepts. And it aids atheists to see that such avenues are vigorously explored by theists so that we may either be shown the errors of our ways and become theists or be able to show the failings of even the very most genuinely sophisticated philosophical efforts of theists to make their concepts sensible and prove them plausible.

Beyond the relevance of the God question, philosophy absolutely does matter to New England Bob and to nearly everyone else too. Everybody cares (or should care) about a wide range of philosophical problems such as: what are the differences between knowledge, opinion, and faith? In what ways are our actions rightly characterized as free and in what ways are they rightly characterized as unfree? What constitutes fairness in punishment given our relative degrees of freedom or lackthereof? What is human nature like? Is there a human nature? What is personhood? What rights does it grant or not grant and why? Is being genetically human enough to give a being a right to life? What are rights anyway? Are they real things? Are they fictional? Why should they be recognized? What constitutes autonomy? Who can morally sufficiently give consent to sex? What is morality? Why is it binding or is it not? Is the death penalty fair? Is homosexuality good or bad? Is euthanasia good or bad? Or, under what circumstances is euthanasia good or bad? What about the ethics of suicide more generally? Is your own life rightfully yours to end or does society have a right to prevent your from hurting yourself when you are depressed but in all other respects physically healthy enough to live painlessly? Is abortion good or bad? Or under what circumstances is abortion good or bad? What is the relationship between consciousness and quantifiable forms of reality? Is it permissible to believe things on faith? What is just? What are people entitled to demand from their fellow human beings morally? What should people be entitled to demand from each other legally?

The frequency with which I see these and numerous other philosophical questions discussed all over the place, on a daily basis, is staggering. And without such questions, atheism blogs would altogether cease to exist as such. No one enthusiastically visiting Freethought Blogs or, even, Why Evolution Is True can say they find philosophy irrelevant with any self-awareness or internal coherence.

All one could say is that professional, specialized philosophers’ most technical, sophisticated, rigorous and complicated analyses of the issues above go beyond a layman’s ability to understand. So reading them is boring and understanding them seems impossible to the layperson since the specialized discussions move analysis beyond the presentations of the subjects that feel immediately accessible and relevant. But the questions remain relevant even though the discussion of them gets too intricate for the untrained and the unread person to keep up. And the discussion does not become mere sophistry simply because laypeople cannot follow anymore. At certain points physics and biology and mathematics, etc. all become virtually inaccessible to anyone but specialists too. So why exactly would anyone expect epistemology or ethics or philosophy of mind or metaphysics, etc. to remain accessible to everyone when being analyzed in the most rigorous and advanced ways? That’s the way it has to be if we are to get beyond a simplistic grasp of issues and into their deeper intricacies. If you do not personally care about all the details of a subject, since you are happy trusting credible authorities who have thought through them for you, then that’s fine. It’s inevitable we each have to do this in most cases since it is literally impossible, given the current state of the normal human brain, to assimilate all the knowledge required to have a specialized opinion on every topic.

One of the exciting things about philosophy is that the questions are relatively accessible. I think the basic problems of nearly any philosophical issue—even highly technical ones—can be boiled down to a fifteen minute explanation offered to intelligent laypeople. Another exciting thing about philosophy is that, as I just elaborated, its questions are some of the very most vital and pressing in our lives. But that does not mean that the only “relevant” ideas on the crucial topics of philosophy are the ones that laypeople can generate in fifteen minutes of thinking about them. As a philosopher, I very much appreciate that there are analyses which go beyond the levels of discussion which have now become common sense knowledge. I am constantly gaining a fresher, deeper, and more enriched understanding of topics I have studied for fifteen years. The idea that more probing philosophy should not be done because most people stop exploring at a superficial level is just ridiculous. I should have stopped thinking about these issues years ago and thought no further about them than what New England Bob does because he and (allegedly, but not really) 99.9999999% of other people do not want to think any further about them in order to achieve any more clarity about them? How preposterous.

There are many more comments which contain many more objections to philosophy for me to patiently wade through. In the meantime, Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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