Thursday, March 08, 2007

Philosophy (uhh) What Is It Good For?

A couple of BIG questions.

Kerry, not playing nice, asks,

"What is philosophy, and what good is it? (bwah-ha-ha!)"
Let's treat them in order. What is philosophy? An old textbook I once picked up said that when you know more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing, then you are doing philosophy (knowing less and less about more and more until you knew nothing about everything was its definition of sociology). A friend from grad school once put it this way -- when you ask why once, you are doing science; when you ask why twice, you are doing philosophy (when you ask why more than twice, you are just a three year old annoying your mother).

We could approach the question sociologically and ask what is it that those labeled philosophers do (apparently, not much except to write blog posts), or we could ask normatively, what should they be doing. Clearly, writing and evaluating arguments is part of the process, but others do that as well. What differentiates philosophy from other analytical disciplines is that it deals ultimately with non-empirical claims in a search for truth. These unobservable truths tend to fall in a couple of categories.

(1) Judgment claims: things like ethics (what actions are good) and aesthetics (what makes something beautiful). These talk about how things should be and not necessarily how they actually are and therefore go beyond questions of direct observation.

(2) Methodological claims: how it is we go about thinking about things. Certainly throughout its history, but especially in the 20th century (from the analytic, continental, and American perspectives), philosophy became thinking about thinking. Questions about logic, the nature of the scientific method, how political power influences beliefs, reflecting on direct lived experience.

(3) Metaphysical (ontological) claims: discussions about what the world is really like beneath what we can see, hear, feel, taste, and touch. Are humans really free or are our actions determined? Are the mind and the brain the same thing? How do we know there are other minds? Does God exist? If so, why do we have Ann Coulter?

(4) Meaning and metaphilosophical conversations: Philosophy looks at words and concepts and tries to gain deeper and more rigorous senses of what they mean. Also looking at the foundations for that practice. Philosophers look at the foundational presuppositions under eveyone's disciplines including their own -- we take seriously the question, "what is philosophy?"

Now, to the deadliest question in all of philosophy, "So what?" What is it good for? On one end of the spectrum is Socrates who argued that philosophy is a necessary part of a meaningful human existence -- the unexamined life is not worth living. On the other end is Bruce Goldberg, my first phil prof, who was a student of Norman Malcolm, a student of Wittgenstein (that actually means some of us know what's coming next). When a frat boy in the back of the lecture hall asked Goldberg what good was all this philosophy nonsense, his response was (and I'll never forget this as long as I live) "nothing, but there are some weirdos out there who can't help but think about this stuff and its safer than having them out on the streets."

I think both are insightful, but not completely correct. Certainly, when you look at the technical work of professional philosophers, it isn't necessarily applicable to the BIG QUESTIONS (tm). Whether Glymour and Friedman's objections to Reichenbach's geometric conventionalism in classical and relativistic gravitation theories fails to fully account for the non-naive theory-dependence of his view...who gives a flying... But at the same time, there is something valuable in thinking about who we are, why we believe what we believe, and how we ought to act towards others. The utilitarian value in philosophical training at any level is the ability to both think clearly and rigorously while also looking to "think outside the box" by looking for and questioning presuppositions that we never realized we were presupposing.

I think the other benefit is in exploding the primacy of "common sense." The universe and life in it is complex. Simple answers are appealing, but they turn out to very rarely be right. Philosophical training involves seeing a series of positions and thinking, "ah, that's right" then finding out that "no, it's not." Philosophy leaves you with a skepticism for neatly packaged answers to difficult questions and an appreciation that thinking hard about things often means looking in places you weren't expecting and taking nuanced and sophisticated views seriously instead of fortune cookie aphorisms that simple jibe with your intuitions or what you want to be true.

pm asks another doozy,
"what is freedom?"
Freedom is an ambiguous term, it has several meanings. In one metaphysical sense, it means having one's actions not pre-determined. The question is whether I type the word "guacamole" out of nothing more than the ability to realize the content of my own will or whether it was the hand of fate that forced my fingers onto the keyboard to create the symbol for a zesty avocado dip. Freedom means having the ability to choose which action to take.

But then, it sometimes also means a lack of external factors giving a predilection towards a given action. If someone holds a gun to your head and threatens your life unless you sing Peggy Lee's "I've Got a Brand New Pair of Roller Skates." Is your choice free? Well, you could choose not to do it, but that choice was coerced, so in some sense it was not free in that the intention was not created by your will. In a similar sense, we can ask about the freedom of those with addictions. now the force is internal to one's biology and not located in a conscious mind outside of you, but it is still not a matter of unimpeded volition.

We also talk about freedom in political and social contexts. When the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, it is not making a metaphysical declaration but rather setting down ground rules for what laws can and cannot do. You cannot be arrested or legal kept from expressing political opinions. Similarly with academic freedom or poetic license, these freedoms are guarantees that certain types of act will be legally or socially protected. When we talk about slaves gaining their freedom, what we mean is that they are no longer under the regime of laws that fail to consider them full citizens.