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.


1 Comment

  1. I have been trying to follow philosophy for sometime. I am just out of engineering school and I seem to have taken a liking to Philosophy, Logic and Semantics in a strange way (strange, to me). I don’t intend to pursue it very seriously in the very near future. Its something very close to the heart I will pursue later when I can afford to.

    I have to agree with you when you say philosophy today is too drawn out for the layman like me. For sometime, I used to visit plato.stanford.edu to get myself familiar with terms. But with each term, I learnt, there were about a 100 that I was not sure with. I mean.. there is this networked list of terms that are quite difficult to get a grip on. Infact, that seems the subject itself. Clarifying definitions and coming to terms with using them. I have had similar difficulties with logic too.

    Thanks for the resources given and the initiative to make philosophy popular. Hopefully we will have more philoso-philes soon. ;)

    Comment by Karthik — May 21, 2006 @ 12:40 pm

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