Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy
Written by Editor   
Wednesday, June 25, 2014 07:59 AM

This article is excerpted from an article about philosophy in Physics.  The parallels to our profession are interesting.

The last few years have seen a number of prominent scientists step up to microphones and belittle the value of philosophy.  Roughly speaking, [people] tend to have three different kinds of lazy critiques of philosophy: one that is totally dopey, one that is frustratingly annoying, and one that is deeply depressing.

“Philosophy tries to understand ... by pure thought, without collecting experimental data.”

This is the totally dopey criticism. Yes, most philosophers do not actually go out and collect data (although there are exceptions). But it makes no sense to jump right from there to the accusation that philosophy completely ignores the empirical information we have collected about the world. When science (or common-sense observation) reveals something interesting and important about the world, philosophers obviously take it into account. (And of course there are bad philosophers, who do all sorts of stupid things, just as there are bad practitioners of every field. Let’s concentrate on the good ones, of whom there are plenty.)

Philosophers do, indeed, tend to think a lot. This is not a bad thing. All of scientific practice involves some degree of “pure thought.” Philosophers are, by their nature, more interested in foundational questions where the latest wrinkle in the data is of less importance. Problems such as the basic nature of [the source of human ills] at its deepest levels requires some amount of rigorous thought to make any progress on them. Shutting up and [conducting research] isn’t good enough.

“Philosophy is completely useless to everyday work.”

Now we have the frustratingly annoying critique. Because: duh. If your criterion for “being interesting or important” comes down to “is useful to me in my work,” you’re going to be leading a fairly intellectually impoverished existence. Nobody denies that the vast majority gets by perfectly well without any input from philosophy at all.  But it also gets by without input from biology, and history, and literature. Philosophy is interesting because of its intrinsic interest.  Philosophers themselves sometimes get too defensive about this, trying to come up with reasons why philosophy is useful. Who cares?

Nevertheless, there are some questions where philosophical input actually is useful – foundational questions.  A huge majority don’t ever worry about these problems. But some of us do! And frankly, if more would make the effort to talk to philosophers, they would save themselves from making a lot of simple mistakes.

“Philosophers care too much about deep-sounding meta-questions, instead of sticking to what can be observed and calculated.”

Finally, the deeply depressing critique. Here we see the unfortunate consequence of a lifetime spent in an academic/educational system that is focused on taking ambitious dreams and crushing them into easily-quantified units of productive work. The idea is apparently that developing a new technique for [identifying dysfunction] is an honorable enterprise worthy of support, while trying to understand what [dysfunctions] actually are and how they affect reality is a boring waste of time. I suspect that a substantial majority who use [chiropractic] in their everyday work are uninterested in, or downright hostile to, attempts to understand the [processes chiropractic addresses].

This makes me sad. I don’t know about all those other folks, but personally I did not fall in love with science as a kid because I was swept up in the romance of finding slightly more efficient techniques. Don’t get me wrong — finding more efficient techniques is crucially important, but it’s not the point — it’s a step along the way to the point.

The point, I take it, is to understand how nature works. Part of that is asking deep questions about what it all means. That’s what got me interested in science, anyway. And part of that task is understanding the foundational aspects of our physical function in the world, digging deeply into issues that go well beyond merely being able to reproduce results. It’s a shame that so many don’t see how good philosophy of science can contribute to this quest.