Is philosophy dead?

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Cartoon by Sidney Harris

You might have noticed: having a dig at philosophy seems to have become a sport among high profile scientists. Stephen Hawking famously declared: “philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science… Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” Neil deGrasse Tyson has dismissed philosophy as encouraging “a little too much question asking” which is distracting and “derail[s]” scientists from moving forward in understanding the natural world. And Lawrence Krauss has asserted that “science progresses and philosophy doesn’t”, denigrating philosophers’ views as “essentially sterile, backward, useless and annoying”.

It seems that the perception of philosophers hasn’t much improved since the 16th century, when Montaigne described philosophers as one-eyed ranters who do nothing but split hairs, digress, obfuscate, quarrel and “use the advantage of their lungs”. In light of all this, it seems unlikely that philosophy can produce, as Montaigne put it, “any solid fruit for the service of life”.

Painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder (detail)

Montaigne alleged that philosophers argue only in order to contradict each other, and amid all the contradictions they lose track of the truth. They collapse under the weight of their own learning, they waffle on in the schools even more than they do in the pub, and their solemn debates are as senseless as the gabbling of fishwives.

To what extent are these scathing critiques justified? Is it fair to say (paraphrasing a famous quip) that there are two kinds of chairs that go with two kinds of armchair philosopher: one that folds up instantly, and another that goes round and round in circles?

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It turns out that philosophy owes its poor reputation at least in part to a widespread misunderstanding of how the nature of philosophy differs from that of science. Once the difference is properly understood, philosophy can be seen to succeed by its own lights, rather than fail by the lights of science.

Massimo Pigliucci is both a philosopher and a scientist, so he’s especially well qualified to comment here. He’s taken issue with the allegation that philosophy doesn’t progress. On the contrary, he insists, philosophy does progress – it’s just that its progress doesn’t occur in the ‘empirical space’ in which science operates; rather, it occurs in ‘conceptual space’. Philosophers explore conceptual space, he says, by constructing arguments, entertaining counter-arguments, and either rejecting or refining their views. And if philosophers rarely arrive at a single definitive answer to their questions, that’s because conceptual space is very broad, so there’s often room for a range of viable perspectives on a question.

Philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein shares Pigliucci’s conviction that philosophy advances. There’s a lot of philosophical progress, she maintains, it’s just that this progress is very hard to see because “we see with it. We incorporate philosophical progress into our own way of viewing the world… it becomes intuitively obvious.” She draws attention to the shifting of public opinion over time: the various impulses to stand “against slavery, against cruel and unusual punishment, against unjust wars, against treating children cruelly” would not have garnered popular support without philosophical arguments. These arguments did heavy work, overcoming the inertia of what seemed intuitively correct at the time. And as Goldstein is quick to point out, this is an object lesson in the importance of taking counter-intuitive positions seriously.

Once we stop measuring philosophical progress by the wrong yardstick, it’s easy to recognise value in the hallmarks of philosophy: open and critical inquiry, rational argument, free and independent thinking, and an earnest consideration of alternative views.

Montaigne does have a point: we need to be on our guard against waffling and against contradiction for its own sake, both of which can afflict philosophical dialogue if we’re not careful. But inevitably, the moment we take philosophy’s vital signs, we find that it’s not dead yet.

This post is adapted from a talk presented by Michelle Sowey at the Victorian Association of Philosophy in Schools Conference, Brunswick on 15 September 2018. Excerpts of some other parts of the talk are available in the document What does philosophy contribute to science?

Postscript 19/02/2019

In his Scientific American article Why Scientists Could Use a March for Philosophy, Joseph S. Biehl writes:

In the last century alone, scientific advances and their resulting technological innovations have led to the doubling of the average life expectancy of human beings, an exponential increase in our capacity to distribute information that is connecting and empowering people all over the planet, a theoretical revolution in our understanding of the universe, and the development of the attendant means to physically explore it. Scientific activity has been the undisputed engine of our advance…

[But] hard choices must be made… about which avenues to pursue and efforts [must be made] to prioritize given limited resources.

The wise society must also insist on the sober-minded consideration of the implications that emerging technologies might have and be alert to the fact that what promises greater comfort and even luxury can nevertheless prove disruptive to the practices and institutions that have provided structure and meaning to the lives of its people. The fruits of science are not inherently good and ought only to be consumed judiciously…

Without the understanding that science provides concerning our natural condition, our philosophical conceptions of how to live would be empty and untethered to reality. But the need is mutual, for without the mapping of normative space rendered by philosophy, our scientific explorations of the physical world would be, if not blind, then dangerously nearsighted in their purpose. Both [science and philosophy] are essential for our society to truly thrive.

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The Philosophy Club works with teachers and students to develop a culture of critical and creative thinking through collaborative enquiry and dialogue.

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