How philosophy might make you smarter (even if it’s total nonsense)

We’ve known for a while now that college graduates with degrees in philosophy are some of the smartest college graduates out there. The average verbal GRE score for philosophy majors is higher than the average for any other major, and while they don’t do as well at math as the math-heavy majors, their average math score is at the top of the range for non-math-heavy majors.

Philosophy professors love to tout this result. (Recent example here.) However, the data we have doesn’t actually show that philosophy makes you smart. It could just be that smart people tend to go into philosophy. I have a dim view of academic philosophy in general, so I’m biased towards this second explanation. Also, my own life seems like a data point in favor of this explanation: after three years of studying philosophy in college, I got a 1600 on my GRE, but I also got a 1590 (out of 1600) on my SAT back when my entire knowledge of philosophy consisted of two or three books.

In spite of these things, I’m now reconsidering the possibility that philosophy really does make you smarter, largely thanks to re-reading Stephen Pinker’s excellent book How the Mind Works. One thing he discusses is the fact that people who do not have the benefit of modern schooling have a terrible time with tests of basic reasoning ability. For example, “Flumo and Yakpalo always drink cane juice together. Flumo is drinking cane juice. Is Yakpalo drinking cane juice?” In a sample response that Pinker quotes, the subject insists that Yakpalo was not drinking cane juice because he was not there that day. “But I told you that Flumo and Yakpalo always drink cane juice together.” “Yakpalo went to his farm on that day and Flumo remained in town on that day,” replies the subject.

The problem is not that the subject is stupid, the problem is that he’s applying common sense. Commonsensically, we know that when we say “always” talking about human behavior, we often don’t mean always always, because human behavior isn’t that predictable. He’s violating a common ground rule assumed by tests in modern, Western schools: “base your reasoning on the premises mentioned in a question, ignore everything else you know.” The purpose of this rule is to teach certain tools of abstract reasoning. As Pinker explains:

The power of these tools is that they can be applied to any problem—how  color vision works, how to put a man on the moon, whether mitochondrial Eve was an African—no matter how ignorant one is at the outset. To master the techniques, students must feign the ignorance that they will later be saddled with when solving problems in their professional lives. A high school student doing Euclidean geometry gets no credit for pulling out a ruler and measuring the triangle, even though that guarantees a correct answer. The point of the lesson is to inculcate a method that later can be used to calculate the unmeasurable, such as the distance to the moon. (How the Mind Works, pp. 302-304)

In his more recent book, The Better Angels of our Nature, Pinker makes the case that the Flynn Effect—the tendency for IQ scores to rise over time—is a result of schools focusing more and more on teaching abstract reasoning skills over memorizing lists of facts (pp. 650-656).

In modern analytic philosophy, abstract reasoning skills of the upmost importance. You won’t get anywhere in philosophy unless you are capable of reasoning, “Professor S’s theory says that when Kirk beams down to the planet’s surface,  the person who appears on the planet’s surface isn’t the same person as the person who stepped into the transporter, but the person who appears on the planet’s surface is the same person as the person who stepped into the transporter, therefore Professor S’s theory is incorrect.” So arguably, doing analytic philosophy is a very good way to train abstract reasoning skills. (And yes, philosophers do argue about Star Trek-style transporters.)

So studying philosophy may make you smarter by training the abstract reasoning skills that are responsible for rising IQs. This explanation is compatible with a generally dim view of philosophy. In fact, it’s compatible with the view that all philosophy is gibberish (though to be clear, that’s not a view I hold).

Bertrand Russell said, “Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.” He could say this because the rules of abstract reasoning do not care whether you know what you are talking about, or whether what you are saying is true. Now philosophers often know what they are talking about, and on rare occasions they even know whether what they are saying is true. These things just aren’t necessary for philosophy to be a good way to teach abstract reasoning.

One important lesson to learn from this is that there’s more to reasoning well than correctly applying the rules of abstract reasoning. This is why I’m less impressed than some atheists by attempts by religious apologists to give “Bayesian” arguments for the existence of God (or the resurrection of Jesus or whatever). Even if they’ve gotten the Bayesian formalism right, the formalism tends to cover for ridiculously ill-supported assumptions, so much so that I’d venture that Bayesian arguments for religious doctrines tend to be even more of a waste of time than most such arguments.

In fact, philosophy may also provide a good illustration of the tensions between the rules of abstract reasoning and what’s actually sensible. If you’re in a philosophy class discussing transporters, you won’t impress your professor by saying, “Who cares if Professor S’s theory gets transporters wrong? Transporters aren’t real.” Saying that violates the rule that logically, a generalization that’s supposed to cover all possibilities can fall to a single counter-example, even a hypothetical counter example. But is there really anything wrong with saying that?

In real life, concepts have fuzzy boundaries, words have multiple related but distinct meanings, and “always” often doesn’t mean always always. Arguably, a good explication of a concept needn’t get every hypothetical case right, or even get every real-world outlier right. When we go around applying rules of abstract reasoning as we would if we had no idea what we’re talking about, we risk making mistakes as a result of ignoring those issues.

  • karmakin

    The way I look at it is that our brain is a muscle, and the more you exercise it, the better you become at using it. Philosophy just happens to be a particularly good form of mental exercise, however it’s far from the only one. For what it’s worth I suspect actual theological study is another good form of mental exercise, however, not everybody who is “studying” religious texts is actually engaging in said theological study.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Does a transporter beam work by actually transporting a physical object (which retains all its other properties except location), or does it disassemble/reassemble?

    Without answers to such questions, the ontological issues remain suspended (and that in itself assumes they have significant meaning anyway).

    Is the punctuation mark at the end of this sentence on your screen the same as the one on mine (and is the one on mine the same as the one I typed)?

    Does any form of the predicate “to be” have any meaning beyond grammar and syntax?

  • kevinkirkpatrick

    “Flumo and Yakpalo always drink cane juice together.”

    Given the unrestricted use of “always”, I can only take this to mean that at all times, Flumo and Yakpalo have been, are, or will be both:
    1) together and
    2) drinking cane juice.

    As such, the sentence “Flumo is drinking cane juice” is implied by the premise and totally unnecessary to answer “Is Yakpalo drinking cane juice?” (if, of course, you “base your reasoning on the premises mentioned in a question, ignore everything else you know”).

  • Chris Hallquist

    @Pierce: philosophers discuss a variety of cases, but the usual ones are disassembly/reassembly cases. Also they discuss whether it matters whether the matter used for reassembly is the same matter as that used for disassembly.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Haven’t the Trekkies worked out a definitive description yet?!?

    • Anonymous Atheist

      Of course. It is disassembling/reassembling; thus the existence of several episodes with reassembly errors as a plot point, and debates about whether it would be killing the original person.

      • Pierce R. Butler

        Now all we need is a consistent and rigorous definition of “same”, preferably one approved by the Vulcan Philosophical Academy.

        (Didn’t one of the t-beam tarfu plots entail a switch with some parallel-universe evil Kirk?)

  • Caleb O

    I think I am one of those atheists who is slightly impressed with Bayesian arguments for the existence of God (Swinburne, Collins). At least they appear to be more successful than deductive arguments. What are these “ridiculously ill-supported assumptions” you speak of?

    • Kevin

      Have you ever heard of Tim and Lydia McGrew? They conclude that the likelihood ratio is 10^44 in favor of the resurrection occurring. However, they don’t address the prior probability so they don’t actually try to argue that the resurrection is probable.

      Google “tim mcgrew bayes” and the results have a bunch of discussions on this topic.

  • Landon

    See, now I’m curious as to your problems with current analytic philosophy. The transporter case you cite, for instance, seems a reasonable way to try and ferret out the principles in operation behind our day-to-day generalizations. The fact that some concepts have fuzzy boundaries by no means indicates either (a) that all concepts do or (b) that there are not clear cases on either side of the putatively blurry divide. Thought-experiments are there for the same reason that natural scientists use laboratory experiments – to isolate certain variables in order to determine what’s really making the difference, as it were. Objecting that transporters aren’t real to a philosopher trying to get at the root of identity ascriptions has roughly as much point as objecting to a physicist that objects don’t exist in frictionless vacuums. The philosopher and physicist are both aware of these facts, but they’re looking for underlying truths, not gestalt-judgments. Maybe it is the case that all we have available to us for certain “big questions” (like identity) are gestalt-judgments, but that’s by no means obvious.

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