Philosophy is useful, whether science thinks so or not

In recent years, science has been presented as an infallible bringer of truth, and philosophy has fallen by the wayside in the public mind. This simply isn't right, according to Rupert Parry. This article debunks three myths: 1. The scientific method is necessarily right, 2. Science progresses and philosophy doesn't, and 3. Philosophy doesn't impact everyday life.

The following is a transcript of a speech given in July at the Blackheath Philosophy Forum, in the Blue Mountains near Sydney. For more information about this great event, visit their website.

In 2009 when I was just starting out with my first year philosophy subjects at university, I had a lecturer who stepped in front of the wide eyed class and started like this: he said "When you leave university, and people in the outside world ask you what you're studying, and you say 'philosophy', a lot of people are going to ask you 'why?' They'll say, 'what use is philosophy?'"

Now, I probably don't need to add that this isn't a common introduction to a subject. We don't typically see lecturers come out and acknowledge a gross public doubt about their topic of choice, telling their students they will be constantly asked for a reason why they chose their subject.

But nevertheless, he was right. Ever since then, I have had countless conversations about my studies, and most of the time I mention philosophy I see a raised eyebrow. Some people ask me, what's the point of studying philosophy? What use is it, in a world where we only see progress from science? Does philosophy even progress at all?

And for a while I grappled with these questions: I knew I liked philosophy, I sure enjoyed doing it (whatever it actually is – that's a subject for another talk), but at the same time I had a similar common sense view of things. When we think of usefulness and progress, we typically look to the sciences. Every week we see a new scientific breakthrough in the media, and these breakthroughs lead to technology we use in our everyday lives. But this clearly isn't the case for philosophy. And as far as usefulness goes, well I knew what "use" was and philosophy didn't seem to fit the mould: you can't get a job with it unless you pursue a career in academia, you can't create things with it, and you certainly can't make a product from a philosophical innovation.

Myth 1: "The scientific method gives us knowledge we know is true."

Now, tell someone you study science, you don't get the same raised eyebrows my philosophy lecturer was referring to. Instead you get an expression which appears to be saying, "Why are you outside in the sun, instead of writing equations on a chalkboard in a dusty room" or "my god, are you some kind of intellectual savant?" neither of which are very accurate depictions of what studying science is like.

Studying science is a satisfying change to philosophy, though, in that you have concrete answers to problems, and you can very often come away from a lecture having learnt how something tangible and observable in the world around you actually works. You feel like you're peeking behind the curtain of nature and seeing the gears ticking away underneath. But after a while of studying physics, I found I had more questions than answers. Why were the results I was getting from physics correct?

How could I put some numbers into an equation, which then gives me an answer about what happens in the real world? If we're to look under the bonnet of the universe, would we actually see maths, or is it just a coincidence that we happened upon the right way of doing things? Why can I model a sound wave using imaginary numbers and get an answer which describes a real wave? Now, if you don't know, an imaginary number is a multiple of the square root of minus one. Think about this – if we take minus one and multiply it by itself, we get plus one. If we take minus two and multiply it by itself, we get plus four. You can't multiply any number by itself and get a negative number, so an imaginary number can in no way exist in the real world, or relate to anything in the real world, and yet it underlies a good portion of modern quantum physics.

As I started to probe deeper into these issues, I realised that most of my lecturers didn't know the answers to them either. They only cared whether or not they could solve problems reliably using the tools that they had. My optics lecturer carefully told the class, "now, we use imaginary numbers to model light waves, but there's really nothing imaginary about lightwaves. We just use imaginary numbers to make the maths easier."

This kind of answer just confused me more. I thought we were trying to work out how the universe really worked, not just how I could calculate the intensity of a beam of light on a screen. It all goes to the root of the issue here: is science living up to what it claims to do? There is no established way of holding science accountable within science, no systematic way of examining the framework of science itself, only a way for scientists to work within this framework, unquestioning.

This is a problem with the way science is spoken about, and taught in university, one which is basically a consequence of its attempts to get as far away from philosophy as possible. Not in any of the physics classes I've been in, have we spoken about the "scientific method", for example. You know that thing which the public thinks scientists are using to find the truth? I'm sure you'd expect it to be in science 101, but at university, it's absent.

Here are some questions which modern scientists are being trained to ignore: How is physics supposed to work? Why is the mathematics we use so unreasonably effective, as Eugine Wigner once put it. How can we put something into science, and keep getting a reliable answer back? How do we make sure that we keep it on this track? This dialogue is hopelessly missing from professional science, and the reason is because physicists, chemists and mathematicians have no idea. They don't know what it is that makes something like mathematics so strangely, sometimes freakishly useful in predicting real life results, they just stumbled upon a magic vending machine of useful equations, and keep pressing the button hoping it works.

This is the beginning of the gap that I found in my inquiry into this problem of science vs. philosophy. The revelation is that this isn't a story about science overtaking philosophy, doing what philosophy does in a better way, but rather it's a story about scientists neglecting the fact that there are so many open philosophical questions about their discipline, some of which could shatter the public conception of what science really is and does (for example, there are strong arguments against accepting scientific consensus as indicative of what really physically exists).

It is a mistake to assume that just because science can make some accurate predictions, it is infallible. When we see scientists such as Sam Harris and Stephen Hawking tell us that science has all the answers, and philosophy has none, we should be skeptical about what philosophical assumptions they have blindly accepted in order to make science work, and how well considered their opinions on what science is and does are.

Myth 2: "Science progresses. Philosophy doesn't."

Even if we can't be sure of how science works, or even whether it really tells us what's "out there", most people would agree that it does progress. We constantly see seismic shifts in our understanding of science, and these shifts have created real change in the world around us, to the point that now we all have technology in our pockets which wouldn't have existed otherwise.

Philosophy, on the other hand, hasn't seemed to progress much if at all. We're still pondering the old questions, which have remained well discussed but ultimately unanswered for thousands of years. Questions like: what do we know really exists? What is consciousness and how does it work? What is the best way to live a good life? How does perception work? Even "What is philosophy?" These have all proved to be extremely difficult riddles, which remain unsolved.

This was something which bothered me in my second year philosophy studies when I started to take the discipline a lot more seriously. How could I commit myself to studying something which didn't give me back any concrete results? Was I just indulging in a bit of fun, intellectually stimulating sophistry, or was I actually extracting information from what I was doing? Was philosophy dead in the respect that physics could churn out these answers, and solve big questions, while philosophy couldn't? When we look at what modern science has achieved in the 300 years or so that it's been around in comparison to what philosophy has achieved in over two thousand years since the greeks, we can't help but feel that science has gotten a whole lot more done.

This is a perception of philosophy which seems to be prevalent among the public and the sciences. In his recent battle with esteemed philosopher David Albert, physicist Lawrence Krauss said:

(philosophers) have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.

Krauss, of course, was wrong. Philosophy does progress, blatantly so, and it does so in a way which isn't so dissimilar to science.

Let me illustrate this with an example. Two and a half thousand years ago, Plato was trying to pinpoint what knowledge was. We know that knowledge is a belief which is true, for example, but that's not all it is: the combination of "being a belief" and "being true" isn't enough to certify something as knowledge. I could say "Stephen Hawking is wearing a green t-shirt right now", and he might coincidentally actually be wearing a green t-shirt at this instant, but this would not make the statement, one which I could hardly claim to know, knowledge. However, if I got a phone call from Stephen Hawking, and I asked him what he was wearing for some reason, and he said a green t-shirt, then I would have a justification for this belief, and Plato concluded that this is what we mean by knowledge. Knowledge is what Stephen Hawking tells you. No rather, knowledge is justified true belief.

This definition stood, relatively unscathed, for over two thousand years until, in 1963, an American philosopher called Edmund Gettier wrote a three-page paper called "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?". It consisted of a couple of simple counter examples to Plato's definition. In doing so, he destroyed the argument that justified true belief could be knowledge, and since then the philosophy community has been trying to find a new, more consistent definition, but that's something which there is still no general consensus on.

Now, in a sense this might not seem much like progress in that we still don't seem to be much closer to solving the original problem of what knowledge is. But it is progress, and it's progress of the same sort that we see in science: Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation used to be the way gravity worked, accepted as truth by the science community. But then advancements in telescope technology showed that the movements of the planets didn't quite align with Newton's equations. Consequently, the entire theory had to be thrown out, opening the door for Einstein to introduce his much more accurate theories of General and Special Relativity.

Just like scientific theories, a philosophical theory is proposed, new evidence arises which can discount the theory, the theory is either patched up and lives on, or it is scrapped, opening the door for another, better theory to take over. We see this kind of progress all throughout philosophy, it's what philosophy journals are in the business of fostering. Philosophical progress.

Myth 3: "Philosophy doesn't impact our everyday life!"

The fact that this misconception can be corrected, that philosophy does progress, is great. However, while this might be a response to one side of the argument that philosophy is dead, I don't think it's the primary reason behind the raised eyebrows and questions of "why study philosophy?". I think the reason that most people think philosophy is dead is because they don't see it having an impact on everyday life. The stereotypical image of an armchair philosopher in his study, reclining with a pipe and musing about the nature of reality doesn't help here.

I think that this perception is easy to prove wrong. Let me explain why.

A few weeks ago after reading a book called Everything Is Illuminated, I stumbled upon the fact that the author, someone I admired, was a vegetarian. This prompted me into thought about the issue, one which I had for a long time just dismissed and not read into. I decided that I would be intellectually honest with myself about it, and apply the critical thought I had learned in philosophy to a real ethical problem in my life, instead of ignoring it further. So I began to read up on the topic: I read in some more depth about utilitarianism, and realised that if I wanted to maximise happiness I was essentially committed to treating animals as agents capable of experiencing suffering and pleasure on a similar level as humans. From there, I read, encountered arguments against this position and for it, solved inconsistencies I found in these arguments, and then found a new lot of inconsistencies. After about two days of reading into the issue and thinking hard, in the same way I would think about a philosophical problem in class, I reached my conclusion. I stopped eating meat on that day and haven't since.

The point is that this is an area where philosophy has had a big impact on my life, and has for many people – Peter Singer's book Animal Liberation has converted countless omnivores to a vegetarian or vegan diet, and it is a book about philosophy. It explains how vegetarianism among other things can be derived from utilitarian ethics. And ethics is just one example of a very important and practically useful area of philosophy. The Philosophy of Law and political philosophy has been hugely influential in developing systems of government and theories behind justified punishment and war, modern philosophical logic pioneered by the likes of Bertrand Russell has proved vital in the development of computing and programming, decision theory has wide applications in risk management and business decisions, theories regarding group agency are starting to become widely accepted, meaning that legally and culturally, decisions made by corporations and large organisations are being treated very differently.

But above everything, if there's one thing that philosophy is good at doing, something which is relevant for everyone, it's that it "cuts diagonally through common sense" to quote Simon Critchley. It ignores dogma and doxa, whatever commonly held opinions are popular at the time, and instead guides us to conclusions based on reason alone.

So let's go back to my philosophy lecturer in 2009. There we were, a theatre full of wide eyed, budding philosophers taking in a first year lecture, and here our lecturer is telling us that we're going to be asked "Why are you studying philosophy" a whole lot. And he paused. He said

particularly, people will ask you 'What is the use of philosophy, anyway'. Now at this point, I want you to notice that word: use. What is the use of philosophy? Well, to truly understand that question, we have to know what we mean by use in the modern world. It's likely that the person who's asking you this question is really asking you a question about money. He or she is asking what philosophy can contribute to the economy. Can philosophy create jobs? Can philosophy contribute to technological development? Can philosophy do something of economic worth?

At this point, my lecturer smiled. He said:

Back in the 17th century there was a philosopher named Adam Smith, who wrote a book called "The Wealth of Nations". In it, he conceived of an economy for the first time, and effectively invented the basis of the system of economics we use today. So when this person asks you what the 'use' of philosophy is, you can tell them that the very fact that they can meaningfully ask that question is due to philosophy.

I think this is the most eloquent defence of philosophy that I've heard. Even if we thought philosophy was "dead", it wouldn't matter a tiny bit: philosophy pervades and underlies everything worth reasoning about, and we're stuck with it whether we like it or not.

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