On Philosophy

May 14, 2006

Everyone Loves Philosophy

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 2:02 pm

Everyone loves philosophy, they just don’t know it yet. People ask philosophical questions constantly, although they rarely direct them at philosophers. Questions about ethics, the validity of science, minds, the ultimate nature of reality, these are all questions that philosophy attempts to answer. For some reason, which I will to explain below, people don’t know that philosophy can answer these questions, so they let them drop, or look for answers in the wrong places.

Consider one of the political “hot topics” at the moment, abortion. The whole issue revolves around the question: “do fetuses have human rights”. This question is an excellent philosophical inquiry. To answer it one needs an ethical theory (ethical philosophy), as well as a definition of what counts as a person (philosophy of mind). However as far as I know no one has actually asked philosophers this question; instead they ask religious authorities or political authorities. Although it’s not necessarily wrong to be religious, answers from religion can’t solve many modern problems, because they aren’t convincing to the majority of the population, who aren’t listening to the same religious authorities that you are. Since religion is a personal choice the people you are trying to sway to your point of view will not be convinced by your argument from religious authority unless they share your beliefs, but what you want is to be able to convince everyone. A philosophical answer on the other hand does have this persuasive power. This is because philosophy, ideally, is based on logic, logic which is accepted by everyone. People of all denominations have the power to reason, and thus the potential to be influenced by a philosophical argument.

Why don’t more people turn to philosophy then? One of the reasons for this is because certain philosophers have given philosophy a bad reputation. Consider Kant for example. Kant’s work has had an immense influence on modern philosophy, especially ethics, which means that as philosophers we are often tempted to refer people to Kant’s work. Unfortunately Kant’s work is nearly impossible to understand, and stay awake while reading, and thus people get the impression that philosophy is too complicated to be useful. Philosophy also gets a bad reputation because, unlike the natural sciences, there is no consensus in philosophy. This in turn gives people the impression that philosophy is somehow less valid than the natural sciences. I will admit that the lack of agreement in philosophy is a sign that the big problems haven’t been solved yet, but the lack of solutions isn’t because philosophy is somehow deficient but because the big problems are so difficult, and unlike the natural sciences philosophers cannot perform experiments to test their theories, they can only reason about them. Finally, philosophy tends to be associated with the ancient philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, in the minds of many, meaning that philosophy seems dated, and unlikely to be of any use solving modern issues. I blame this association on bad press, because philosophy has progressed almost as much as science has, it’s just that philosophy has never had an Einstein to make it popular and to demonstrate the progress it has made.

Over the years people have come to love science. We know what kinds of questions to ask of science, and even though science can undermine religious beliefs people no longer feel threatened by it (well, at least the majority). One day the same thing will happen to philosophy. The fact that you are reading this blog indicates that we are making a step in the right direction, because now you know a little more about philosophy. Of course sites like Ask Philosophers (see sidebar) are making an even bigger difference.

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