Why not philosophy

I continue to find philosophy more fascinating than science, but every now and then I take a step back and wonder if I really want to spend the rest of my life solving 2000 year old problems that look unsolvable by their very nature. Science seems to progress, philosophy never seems to. It might not be fun slogging away at a Linux terminal for five years in order to publish one number in a journal, but is it any more satisfying slogging away in a pile of 2000 year old texts coming up with one interpretation of a 2000 year old problem — one interpretation amongst thousands that all seem to be equally unsatisfactory?

The only problems of philosophy that appear to be “certainly” solved are those that have been decided by science. The design argument for God — largely discredited because of science. Kant’s views of space and time — discredited by non-Euclidean geometry. Various positions on the nature of consciousness and free will — discredited by advances in cognitive science, psychology and neurobiology.

I might have a lot of fun getting immersed in the word problems that constitute much of philosophy. But I should not expect to get anywhere with them. If I’m lucky I might manage to have my name mentioned by similarly obsessed colleagues. But truth? Strewth.

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13 Responses to Why not philosophy

  1. phil says:

    I’m not sure we don’t make progress in philosophy, or at least more progress than you might think (actually, I’m not sure we have solved the problems you say we have!). Perhaps we should measure progress in terms of the number of people who take a deeper interest in philosophical questions. Or we should allow that while none of the answers to the central problems are decisive, and therefore we are not going to establish a ‘truth’ here, some of them are better than others, and much more sophisticated than they were a long time ago.

    I’m not sure we should get hung up on truth too much anyway. I’m with Socrates, to the extent that I think I’ve done a good job if I persuade someone that they do not know the truth about things. People who claim to know the truth tend to be ever so slightly dangerous, or at least scary.

    all the best


  2. Incompetent Philosopher says:

    I’m not *entirely* sure we’ve solved the problems I mentioned either. But I think those problems are the ones where more options have been eliminated, i.e. there’s less room for argument. Of course it’s still possible to argue for god on the basis of design, but you’d have fewer good arguments than the ancients had. There are probably better examples of philosophical problems that science has helped to narrow down (if not solve). I’m somewhat new to philosophy so I probably missed some obvious ones.

    And in my experience most non-philosophers find philosophy unpersuasive at best, and inane at worst. Academic philosophy is largely aimed at persuading other philosophers.

  3. khuram says:

    Problems or questions etc. are basically of two types … objective and subjective…. Science has found solutions to only a few of objective type problems. Rest of objective type questions as well as the whole sphere of subjective type issues still fall under the purview of Philosophy.

    As far as ‘objective’ issues are concerned, their progress is visible to even uneducated or less educated people. Progress in subjectivity however is concerned with the intellectual insights of some individuals — I mean Philosophers or other Spiritualists. Subjectivity is not concerned with finding the definite answers to the issues/ problems but it is concerned with determining the nature, extent and types of those problems… So progress can exist, in subjective issues also. But this type of progress has to be invisible to Non-Philosophical/ Non-Spiritual type people.


  4. Philosophy is much more, in my opinion, about the progress of the comprehension of subject’s place in the universe, and not some Popperian 3rd world knowledge.
    The nature of philosophical though is such that every following person can’t really start from where the previous person stopped. Because you would most likely misunderstand , or not understand what that “previous” philosopher is talking about. After all developed philosophers misunderstand each other. Why would a newbie expect to understand all the issues which are not mentioned in the books, and which “go without saying”?
    So, seems to me “development of philosophy” notion is problematic. To me it is more of a re-development of philosophical insights in each person who is interested in it.
    So, if you want to “do something useful”, I would also think science. If you want “to understand”, then philosophy already has a lot of answers, issues, and solutions.

  5. Tanasije,

    The problem is exactly the proliferation of answers to ancient problems. I was not really thinking about doing something useful in the sense of something that will vaguely make the world a better place. Rather, it seems that as more philosophy is done, we get more possible answers (some of them mind-bogglingly creative and elegant) to the same number of questions, but we don’t get closer to determining which of them are correct (or even which of them are more likely to be correct). I suppose you would say it’s not a problem to have many possible answers to one question without ever knowing which is more correct. So perhaps it’s just the intolerant scientist in me who thinks that you haven’t really understood anything about a problem if all you know is that you have a hundred possible answers.

    I suppose each individual can reach his own conclusion about which philosophical answer is right. And I believe that one of the most valuable aspects of philosophy is the method of thinking it instills in its practitioners. But would you really say that philosophy then only has value to the individual who practices it?

  6. Hi, let me first say that I’m not saying that there is no objective truth; I certainly think that there is better/worse ways to look at the things. I think that philosophy makes sense only as search for those objective truths.

    but we don’t get closer to determining which of them are correct (or even which of them are more likely to be correct)
    That is what I think is the issue though. Philosophy is a social inquiry in part (as a practice/discipline), but I think that the individual dimension is the crucial one. It is the individual which comprehends, and that is, imho, what philosophy is about. And it always need to be the choice of that individual of which answer is better, if not it will only be dogma.
    So, I say, we do the best we can do in understanding. Helping each other and discussing. Even if some perfect philosopher gets to the final comprehension, that path to understanding, discussing will not go away. There will be always those who didn’t understand.
    In fact who knows… who can say if maybe someone didn’t really comprehend whatever was there to be comprehended? :)

  7. phil says:

    I agree that academic philosophy is largely aimed at other philosophers, and I do find that very frustrating. Personally, I don’t see the point in writing a book aimed at other philosophers, firstly because they are not actually that open to arguments, and secondly they constitute a very small market. So I’ve aimed my books at a general readership, and that, so far, seems to be going well — people respond very positively (so far).

    What people seem to be looking for is someone to offer and articulate a framework of thought and argument for them, which enables them to say what they have been wanting to say for a long time. That me seem a little bity patronising, but that seems to be what has been happening in response to my most recent book, which is a philosophical critique of the idea of ‘evil’ and how it has been deployed in the war on ‘terror’. People are eager and a bit grateful to have their frustrations and anger articulated into a coherent framework. Perhaps that is what we ought to be doing. That makes philosophy very political, but that’s okay with me.

    all th best


  8. khuram says:

    Yes! very important function of Philosophy is to elaborate, explain and account for the general but vogue feelings of a common person. The common persons may not be conscious of those feelings before having read the Philosophy. But while reading the Philosophy, the reader must feel as if it were the same things that already should have been known to him.

    Function of Philosophy is to draw theoretical pictures of whatever we observe or feel. Philosophy should be concerned as much with generating questions as to the finding of answers. As a matter of fact, Philosophical assertions cannot be regarded as objective truths. Philosophy is subjective by nature. To be subjective does not mean to be inferior. Fact is that to be ‘subjective’ means to be ‘superior’ … because only humans are subjective whereas computer can be regarded even as an objective thinker.

    ‘Science’ is basically whatever can be proved objectively. And whatever can be proved objectively, initially it was already known to humans in subjective style. General theory of Relativity is Science because it can be supported by objective evidence. But point is that Einstien had conceived this theory perheps in 1916 whereas its experimental proof was found in 1919. It means that before when this theory bacame ‘science’ or that before when it could be proved objectively, it was already in the notice of humanity in subjective style.

    In this way, science is only that portion of humanity’s subjective knowledge that could be proved objectively. And objectivity and truth are not Synonymous at all. Subjective ideas can be true whether or not they are supported by the objective evidence. During the period 1916-19, General Theory of Relativity had been remained such a subjective theory which was true in fact, despite the fact that no experimental proof had been found in that period.

    Philosophy is much broader than science. Science is what questions have been objectively answered. Philosophy is what could be the more and more questions and what could be all the possible answers to those more and more questions. Philosophy takes precedence over science because it is Philosophy which has to raise questions and then to propose answers. Science takes only those answers, out of all the ‘proposed answers’, which can be experimentally proved by using the available experimental techniques.


  9. khuram says:

    Another Important Difference between Science & Philosophy:

    One important difference between Science and Philosophy is the determination of quatitative relationships beween variables. Philosophy is NOT concerned with this activity whereas, in my assessment, Science overemphasizes the role and importance of this activity.

    In this way, Philosophy has to find the possible variables and to propose any possible relationships between those variables. Science then has to work out the exact quantitative relationship between those variables.

    Thus, in my assessment, the part of Newton’s second law which asserts the existence of positive relationship between force and acceleration, is Philosophical in nature. On the other hand, the formulation of exact quantitative relationship in the form of formula i.e. “F = ma”, is Scientific in nature.


  10. khuram says:

    And it is often said that Philosopher creates knowledge by mere ‘thinking’ whereas Scientist creates knowledge by ‘observing’. My point of view is that ultimate input for any kind of ‘thinking’ has to be found in ‘observations’. The role of philosopher is to systemetically shape the already existing observations into the form of Philosophical assertions regarding the existence of various inter-related variables.

    Scientist actually would purposefully ‘observe’ those already identified variables with the view to just test the already proposed kind of relationships between them. Galileo’s experiments about speed of falling objects having different weights as well as about the projectile motion were actually his purposeful attempts to just check the validities of the already established Greek Philosophical views regarding these matters.

    Similarly, Michealsons & Morley’s experiment which led them to find the notion of ‘relative constancy of the speed of light’, was also basically their purposeful attempt to just check the validity of already existing philosophical type idea about the existence of ‘eather’. I am having the opinion that creation of Knowledge is not the role of Scientist. To create new knowledge is actually the role of Philosopher. The role of Scientist is just to extract the objective truths out of already existing ideas. Through experimentation (i.e. through purposeful observations), the scientist would bring refinements in many already existing vouge philosophical ideas by establishing the exact quantitative relationships between already existing variables.

    There is another positive role of Scientist. He has to practically implement his so refined theories by inventing new technologies also.


  11. [...] At any rate, I acknowledge my previous mistake in attempting to evaluate the “progress” of philosophy. [...]

  12. [...] has to do with my philosophical inclinations). Which is a strange turnaround from the time when I wondered whether philosophy was a futile pursuit. Increasingly, when reading science papers, I find myself [...]

  13. Not having read the other posts (sorry! schedule conflicts!) I have to express some disappointment at the apparent lack of real study that had gone before your conclusion. You seem to be accepting as “science” the popular opinions about this or that person’s views as a “scientist” while writing off all other views as having been disproven, or being altogether irrelevant, all based on little, to speak of, beyond what the average Joe Sixpack might pick up from the History Channel or public school.

    If only for the sake of your own integrity as a thinking human being, please check your sources more critically. You might just find God to be a lot more involved in the picture than you have been led to think, despite this pandemic (Post)-Modern myopia.

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