Do we need Philosophy when we have Science?

Do we need Philosophy when we have Science? December 14, 2015
Philosopher's Stone
Philosopher’s stone courtesy of tv on Flickr, 2007. Creative Commons License 2.0

So, I’m on holidays from my first term at university (sorry blog, will do better once I’m doing less economics) and as I’m studying Philosophy (among other things), I have been ever more regularly exposed to the view that Philosophy is Useless.

Not that I hadn’t come across it before. The idea is a pretty common one: that we don’t need Philosophy, that it was an OK way of finding truth before we properly worked out the scientific method, but is now as out of date as… St. Charles Borromeo.

It’s not even the usual “humanties won’t get you a job, fellah” shtick: philosophy is often derided as inherently worthless (usually to the philosophy student’s face, which is apparently socially acceptable). The substance of the criticism is usually that philosophy is trying to answer obscure, byzantine or nitpicky questions that just don’t really matter:

Yeah, maybe we can’t strictly prove that we’re not brains in vats plugged directly into the Matrix; but why even bother asking questions like that when the scenario posited is so obviously false? 

It might be possible to sit in your chair and come up with a compelling-sounding account of reality that tries to make sense of the fact that everything in the universe seem to be contingent (owing its existence to something else) and yet we nonetheless have a universe: but again, why? The universe is just obviously here: maybe it’s not the kind of thing one should even try to make sense of.

As for moral philosophy, why bother trying to figure out the exact nature of morality? Maybe it’s socially conditioned, maybe it’s a biological imperative, maybe there’s some objective reality to it: but basically you’ll either be a dick or you won’t, and these abstract arguments won’t change anyone’s behaviour either way.

These are all approximations of arguments I’ve had put to me on more than one occasion, and they’re more often than not followed by a pivot to praising the virtues of science, which DELIVERS RESULTS THAT YOU CAN MEASURE, and has actually helped to solve a load of real-world problems.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably aren’t incredibly sympathetic to attacks like these. (Some top of the head responses to the first one: Why do we think it’s obvious we’re not brains in a vat? What does that tell us about other things we think are obvious? Might it, for instance, suggest that everything we know is based on a leap of faith?) But the steel-man version of the “pragmatic argument” is, on its own terms, a good deal more solid than it looks.

Now, it’s not that solid. Doing philosophy is just seeking truth. It’s just thinking, and training yourself to think well, and asking interesting questions, and familiarising yourself with the questions other people have asked and the answers they’ve posited to them. And yes, many, many of those questions have huge implications for everyday life.

One of my general philosophy lecturers asked, midway through one of his lectures, how many people in the hall believed in psychological egoism – that humans were inherently selfish creatures and who only did altruistic actions if they were ultimately beneficial to themselves. Turns out about half the students did. The lecturer then proceeded to outline a 10-minute argument against psychological egoism that relied on no evidence not immediately accessible to anyone in the room (I might blog about it another time): by the end of it less than an eighth of the students still thought humans were basically selfish. That’s obviously going to make some changes to way those people approach interactions with others – I’d like to think a change for the better.

But to give the pragmatists their due, not all the questions philosophy asks are like that. Whether the universe is all mind, all matter, or some mixture of both, is to my mind a very interesting question: but it’s not one with a lot of immediate practical relevance (assuming that things function in more or less the same way regardless). If someone’s just completely uninterested in that question on pragmatic grounds it’s not immediately obvious how to respond to them.

I might be inclined to call that incuriosity, and to call it a betrayal of the spirit, the desire to get to the bottom of things, that motivates scientific enquiry in the first place. But that’s a response that can be dismantled by an armour-piercing “So what?” What if my interlocutor is interested in science on purely pragmatic grounds? “Because it makes the planes fly” is a pretty terrible argument for science as the sole method for discerning ultimate truth. But what if making the planes fly is all, and ultimate truth can fend for itself?

The answer has to be that making the planes fly is never really all. There may be atheists in foxholes: but there is no-one who has not thought about ultimate questions. There is no one so pragmatic so as to never wonder, in a moment of grief or exultation, about the real face of our world, the true nature of universe we find ourselves in, how their life fits into it, and what it all means.

Philosophy attempts to provide answers to those questions. And even if the answer the pragmatist comes up with is “there is no ultimate meaning”, then they will still need to figure out how to respond to that: with grim resolve, joy in the face of the absurd, attempts to imbue personal goals with existential importance… all these are responses, and all of them are philosophical responses.

To give the TL/DR version: Philosophy isn’t useless – it’s inescapable.

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