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.


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