Thursday, October 21, 2010

Why philosophy is important

I've criticized and condemned professional philosophers here rather stridently. But why should I do so? Religion is one thing — religion is egregiously harmful — but why would I criticize a class of people for wasting their own time? Nobody has to read philosophy, and philosophy doesn't have anything like the social and political privilege of religion. I don't spend any time criticizing postmodernist literary criticism, even though I'm convinced (by Frederick Crews, whose meta-criticism I highly recommend) that it's just as much a bullshit waste of time as philosophy. To some degree, it's just personal: I invested a lot of my own time and energy into studying philosophy, and I'm peeved that this investment didn't pan out.

But there's a deeper reason.

I really do think philosophy is important, and I think professional philosophers are not only letting us down, but actively making it more difficult for honest practitioners to fill in the gap.

Nobody's wrong all the time, and I completely agree with Ayn Rand when she says,
A philosophic system is an integrated view of existence. As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation -- or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind's wings should have grown.

— Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It
Of course, I don't agree with the philosophy she constructed — to a large extent I suspect it rests on, rather than replaces, her subconscious prejudices — but she undeniably displays the virtue of giving explicit voice to those prejudices; she brings them out where we can see them and discuss them directly.

I stumbled on this article on scientific ignorance, which brought the topic to mind. The problem is not, in my opinion, that people are ignorant of particular scientific (or economic) facts. There's too much to know in this world. Not even the most subtle, inquiring and flexible mind can learn even the basics of every scientific and intellectual discipline, even those significantly affected by her own actions and choices. Everyone needs is a general framework for dealing with the massive amount of information available in the modern world. And a general framework is nothing more or less than a philosophy. Now, more than ever, we need to develop philosophical tools to operate in complicated modern society.

Similarly, I recently had a conversation with my economics professor instructor. He dislikes Krugman because my professor believes Krugman spends too much time criticizing Bush fils. And not so much because he necessarily thinks Krugman is mistaken (like most college-level faculty, he's sensibly reticent about his own politics) but rather because he thinks Krugman as an economist ought to take a more neutral tone. People pick someone to intellectually follow, he asserts, therefore intellectual leaders have a duty of objectivity and neutrality. My response is that it's a Bad Idea for anyone to follow anyone else; there are people we generally agree with, but we should read everything critically. His rejoinder, which of course I had to admit, was that people actually do more-or-less uncritically follow intellectual leaders.

Still, I think my point is valuable at a higher level. Although people do in fact follow others, they shouldn't do so. More importantly, I strongly suspect that the reason people follow others is not that they cannot think critically, but they have been socially habituated to thinking uncritically.

Critical thinking does not seem that difficult; it doesn't seem to require exception intellectual power. I hold myself up as an anecdotal example: I have only average (or slightly below-average) "raw" intellectual power, both memory and processing speed. I pride myself, however, on my ability to have an intelligent conversation with an expert in almost any intellectual discipline, from quantum mechanics to postmodernist literary criticism. The "secret" is to focus on the methodology and let the expert supply the facts and background. There really is only one good methodology: the scientific method. Understand this one method, and you can follow the reasoning of any expert in any discipline... at least any scientific discipline.

It's really easy: ask an expert to tell you a story; when she gets to something that doesn't seem to make sense, ask her: how do you know? If you're dealing with a real scientist, her eyes will light up and she'll really get interested, and she'll tell you how she knows, and you'll understand her explanation. It'll always be in exactly this form: we looked at something; if the intuitive explanation were correct we would have seen that, but instead we saw this.

More importantly, the focus on method allows anyone to detect egregious bullshit in any discipline. You don't actually need the facts and the background: look at the method: if a practitioner is not using that method to come to his conclusion, then he's bullshitting you. (Which is of course not to say that the conclusion is definitely false.) And if practitioners of some discipline generally fail to use the scientific method, then the entire discipline is bullshit. Ask the practitioner: how do you know? He'll become uninterested or even hostile. He'll tell you, "it's complicated," or he'll start spouting some incomprehensible mumbo jumbo.

It's not trivial to understand the scientific method; you have to do your own intellectual work there. If you don't thoroughly understand the method, a skillful bullshit artist can slide his bullshit into the gaps in your understanding. (More precisely, different bullshit artists hide their bullshit in various gaps; if those gaps match your own, you'll see fail to see that particular artist's bullshit.) But it's not that hard; the primary difficulty seems to be cognitive dissonance caused by applying the scientific method to one's subconscious prejudices.

And that, I think, is what philosophy ought to do. An entire class of academics — the scientific academy — have eliminated bullshit with good success from their individual disciplines. I don't see any compelling political or intellectual reason why the philosophers cannot do the same in general. I think I have outlined good reasons why they should do so: the scientific method is enormously useful, members of a complex society require a general method of separating sense from bullshit, and the concept of a general way of thinking is dead-center in the domain of philosophy. We might relegate exploring alternative methodologies to a subset of philosophy, but we need someone — and who better than philosophers — to confer substantial academic privilege on the scientific method in general, and to exercise that privilege to the general elimination of bullshit.

Academic philosophers do not, on the whole, seem to do so, and even those I think are clued in seem to passively accept the really absurd level of egregious bullshit in their profession (on the ground, I think, that we cannot be absolutely certain the scientific method is really universally applicable). Professional philosophers are, of course, free to do as they please, but until they give us something better than the irrelevant and mind-numbing bullshit they presently supply, they will not have my respect or admiration, and I hope you will withhold your own.


  1. You need to either stop writing such insightful posts so I can ignore your blog, or stop linking to poorly-written would-be "deep" articles at so I can start telling people to read without worrying that the first thing they'll see is one of them. :)

    By the way: b******t (self-censored so I don't set off any Blogspot filters) has a recursive effect; have you tried reading "Fashionable Nonsense"? The authors' idea sounds like such a great one, but when you start to read the book -- which doesn't even subject you to (much of) the original paper -- they get so boring and obtuse that the book is snore-inducing. I couldn't get more than halfway through before giving up.

  2. By the way: b******t (self-censored so I don't set off any Blogspot filters)

    I don't have any filters enabled. You're perfectly free to say "bullshit" here. Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, motherfucker, cocksucker and tits are also acceptable, thank Carlin.

  3. > Although people do in fact follow others, they shouldn't do so.

    In the context of forming their philosophy, yes, I agree.

    I don't agree so much with the next part though:

    > More importantly, I strongly suspect that the reason people follow others is not that they cannot think critically, but they have been socially habituated to thinking uncritically.

    There's doubtless a great deal of pressure from society to think uncritically. I'm convinced, though, that this is actually the default state of humans, even before society gets a chance to work on them.

    Young children demonstrate a massive tendency to believe whatever claims are spoken to them; even if society were neutral, that means humans have a big disadvantage when it comes to habits of thinking.

    Rather, I think we have to work hard, and persistently, not only to learn critical thinking (and teach others to do so) but to reinforce habits of critical thinking, precisely because they're counter to our nature.


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