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.

Peter van Inwagen's argument for Christianity
My looong review of William Lane Craig's book Reasonable Faith
Arguments for the existence of something that sounds kind of like a god
From the archives: The Sam Harris-William Lane Craig debate