From the archives: Is studying philosophy beneficial?

This is another post that generated a long discussion when I first posted it in July 2011. It’s also one I’m likely to refer back to in the future, so I really should give you all a chance to discuss it.

From xkcd:

Guy: I used to think correlation implied causation. Then I took a statistics class. Now I don’t.

Girl: Sounds like the class helped.

Guy: Well, maybe.

The guy’s worry in this comic sounds silly, but it’s actually a fairly good depiction of how I feel whenever someone asks/tells me, “You have a lot of issues with philosophy, but surely you got something out of it, right?” The truth is that it’s very hard to tell. This is something you probably already know, but it’s worth rehashing: correlation does not equal causation.

So, for example, if you observe that philosophers tend to be smarter than non-philosophers, there are at least two ways to explain this. It might be that philosophy helps make people smart. But it also might be that philosophy doesn’t do anything to make people smart, it just tends to attract smart people. Merely knowing that philosophers are smart isn’t enough to tell which hypothesis is right. The same goes for observing that philosophers tend to be more rational, better at spotting fallacies, etc.

Furthermore, it’s not clear to me that the correlation between studying philosophy and being rational is all that strong. I won’t cite William Lane Craig here, because as I’ve said before he’s an atypical example of a philosopher. But take Peter van Inwagen and Alvin Plantinga, who are more nearly typical of philosophers. Van Inwagen has a fairly well-known essay titled “Quam Dilecta” which is full of the sort of stupid fallacies I’d expect out of Dinesh D’Souza. And Plantinga has spent a fair amount of time mistaking his own scientific ignorance for philosophical insight.

On the other end of things, there are non-philosophers who manage to do quite well at being rational without, apparently, any help from philosophy. For example George Orwell’s essays, most famously “Politics and the English Language,” contain better insights into how to be rational than you will get out of 99% of philosophers. And unlike JS Allen, I don’t think PZ Myers is a clown. Indeed I think that on many issues he’s one of the few displaying moral clarity.

In short, while “studying philosophy makes you more rational” is something I’ve heard a lot of people say (perhaps more often than any other pro-philosophy talking point), the evidence seems to me unclear. At least, it’s unclear when I look at my own first-hand experiences and third-person observations of others. Maybe when you look at your life, you become convinced it helped you a lot, but I can’t say the same.

In spite of this, there is one undeniable benefit of studying philosophy: learning stuff about about philosophy as an academic discipline, institution, tradition, whatever you call it. To wit: the fact that philosophers do not agree on anything to speak of is not something you can learn by a priori insight, or by studying a lot of physics.

And that’s a fact worth knowing. To take a recent example, I think Jerry Coyne’s and Jason Rosenhouse’s responses to Ed Feser could have benefited from pointing it out: the problem with Feser’s declarations about what Coyne must do to be “serious” isn’t really the number of books Feser himself tells Coyne to read. Rather, it’s the fact that, because no body agrees on what’s worth reading, if Coyne took every such declaration seriously there really would be no end to his reading project.

On the other hand, I think Coyne and Rosenhouse are being basically sensible. They aren’t walking in darkness for lack of knowledge about the academic philosophy world. And Coyne and Rosenhouse manage to be basically sensible without having gotten masters degrees in philosophy. That keeps me from feeling too proud about all the time I’ve spent doing that.

  • theodorewarner

    Part of the fascination I have with Craig and the movement in which he is a giant is that, right now, Biola University runs the world’s largest philosophy program. Whatever philosophy is, therefore, as a discipline, it is being infiltrated by Fundamentalists. And they go on to other universities. The phenomenon is not different from those lawyers out of Regents.

  • Bronze Dog

    I do think there’s some use that comes out of it if it makes you think more about how you think, becoming consciously aware of sloppy fallacies, which axioms you or others take for granted, and similar things. Sometimes knowing a bit about the history of thought can be handy if you can identify the methods someone used to reach a belief.

    But I wouldn’t be terribly confident that a degree demonstrates you’ve gotten those benefits or are using them consistently. And that’s one source of “maybe.”

  • Patrick

    About a decade ago as an undergraduate, someone in my dorm room argued to me that evil exists is because free will cannot exist unless evil actually occurs, and free will is a more important good than all the evil in the world. I asked them what that said about heaven and god.

    Now, I read that same conversation happening with respect to Plantinga’s free will defense against the problem of evil.

    The words are bigger than they were in my dorm room.

    But the ideas aren’t any better.

    That’s why it seems like academic philosophy is only doing half of its job. Half the work is in making things rigorous. The other half is, once rigor has been attained, throwing out the stuff that’s crap and arriving at some form of consensus. If the latter half can’t be done, then maybe philosophy as a discipline isn’t so useful, and could just be replaced with classes in logic and reasoning.

  • Annatar

    Chris noted that people like Jerry Coyne and Jason Rosenhouse haven’t studied philosophy, yet they have all the (supposed) benefits that people often say come from studying philosophy.

    I get that kind of comment when i tell people i study music. People say “well, you don’t need a music degree to perform music,” in the same way you might say “well, you don’t need a philosophy degree to think rationally.” I honestly have no idea how to respond to it, so i just say “i study it because i am passionate about it.”

    That seems to me true for almost any discipline. You don’t need a physics degree to understand physics, since you could (hypothetically) rediscover all that stuff on your own. It’s just, even if you had that kind of time (and mind), why re invent the wheel?

    I don’t really know where I am going with this, but I guess my answer would be “studying anything is beneficial if you feel like you benefit from it.”

  • James M

    Do philosophy courses teach you to think rationally? It teaches you how to bullshit your way through arguments supporting untenable positions, but then so does law school.

  • Albert Freaking Einstein

    This is a surprising blog post for someone who has graduated from Notre Dame with a master’s degree in philosophy (and a repeat blog post at that). You ask if studying philosophy is beneficial; which immediately raises the suspicion that perhaps something is being misunderstood. Beneficial for what? For discovering new empirically verifiable scientific facts about the natural world? If that is the question (and lamentably, for most atheists this seems to be the case), clearly, not so much. That’s what science is for. But that philosophy is not science is no criticism of philosophy.

    One of the early lessons one would hope to have learned before embarking on a long and expensive academic career under false expectations is that: “One comes to philosophy already endowed with a stock of opinions. It is not the business of philosophy either to undermine or to justify these preexisting opinions, to any great extent, but only to try to discover ways of expanding them into an orderly system.” – David K. Lewis.

    Is philosophy beneficial? The question seems so absurd, one has to suspect there is an agenda lurking behind it. Of course philosophical study is beneficial. Maybe its not beneficial for helping us to discover how proteins are formed, or how to compose a classical sonata, or how to dismiss theism in six words or less, but whoever thought otherwise? Its beneficial for increasing human understanding and comprehension in the broadest sense; by clarifying concepts and helping us see how certain propositions stand in certain relations to others. Another way philosophical inquiry is of great benefit (and I’m guessing this is the real worry) is in its ability to unmask fraudulent scientific claims; that is, non-empirical metaphysical claims conjoined with, or masquerading as science. In this it provides an invaluable and much needed service.

    • James M

      How does one use philosophy to unmask fraudulent scientific claims? Wouldn’t one merely need to c

    • James M

      Sorry for the above. An errant button was pressed.

      How does one use philosophy to unmask fraudulent scientific claims? Wouldn’t one merely need to consult the current scientific literature and compare that to what is being claimed and the methods used to come to that claim? You don’t really need philosophy for that.

      As far as clarifying concepts, I haven’t found that philosophy has managed to make any concepts particularly clear. Your mileage may very, of course.

      • Albert Freaking Einstein

        As I noted, the contrast is between science and philosophy rather than between science and poorly done science. Philosophy and metaphysics dressed up and sold as science.

        This is commonly seen when someone attempts to draw some grandiose conclusion from science when further inspection inevitably reveals that the conclusion either doesn’t follow at all, or if it does, it follows only from the conjunction of the science with some non-empirical doctrine(s) covertly smuggled in.

        Apparently, it takes a philosopher to recognize philosophical snake oil when its being sold as science; hence his usefulness as a whistle-blower wherever this occurs.

  • Micheal Rousselle

    I do trust all of the ideas you have offered on your post. They’re very convincing and will certainly work. Nonetheless, the posts are very brief for novices. May you please prolong them a little from next time? Thank you for the post.

  • piero

    I’ve always wanted to do a postgraduate degree in philosophy. Unfortunately, I’m not at all interested in Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and Augustine. They were simply and demonstrably wrong. I am interested in Epicurus, Democritus, Spinoza, Russell, Wittgenstein, Alonzo Church, Kurt Gödel and a host of others. I am most certainly not interested in Heidegger, Hegel, Descartes, Plantinga. So far, I’ve found no postgraduate program that meets my requirements, and I don’t think there ever will.

    I like philosophy a lot, but I dislike silly philosophy. What would you recommend?

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