What is philosophy good for?

I have studied philosophy for a few years full-time at university, and ever since then for at least a few hours a week. and I have found it to be more useful in everyday life than the mathematics, physics and computer science that I also studied (in other years).1

(I admit that the maths included too little statistics, which turns out to be almost as useful as philosophy).

On the other hand, even famous philosophers like Daniel Dennett have doubts about much of what goes on in the field:

A great deal of philosophy doesn’t really deserve much of a place of the world,” he says. “Philosophy in some quarters has become self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum that’s not dealing of problems of any intrinsic interest.

Much if not all philosophical work in analytic metaphysics, for example, is “wilfully cut off from any serious issues,” says Dennett. The problem, he explains, is that clever students looking to show off their skills “concoct cute counterarguments that require neither technical training nor empirical knowledge.” These then build off each other and invade the journals, and philosophical discourse.

There are many theories in philosophy. Most of these are wrong, and have been clearly shown to be wrong by rival philosophers. However, the value here is often that demonstration, because the theories are often tempting and the value comes in knowing why they are wrong. When we deal with those serious issues outside the realm of professional philosophy, we often fall into the trap of finding what seems like a simple solution that does not actually solve the whole problem. As H. L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

I find that when dealing with those issues, rather than using the Donald Trump approach, I can sometimes remember to avoid the trap and use some of the tools I acquired while studying philosophy to realize that there is some hidden complexity and know where some of that complexity is likely to be hidden. I can look at the counter-examples that are known, and rival ideas to see which may fit the situation better.

I did not get any simple answers to “the big questions” from philosophy. The biggest benefit I got was a toolkit of partial explanations and tools for reasoning, together with a set of approaches to generating more questions to expose unknown issues. In many cases, the big questions, such as “do we have free will” did turn out to have at least partial answers. For example, I’m sold on at least some of Dennett’s answers in “Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting” and I think that the answers have an important bearing on some important moral issues such as when we should hold people accountable for their actions and in what way.

I suppose that having said that, I’ll have to explain why in a subsequent post. A rough idea is that the everyday concept of free will, which is intended to rule out situations like being forced at gunpoint to do something, is a better starting point than the more abstract ideas that seem to imply we would have to defy the laws of physics. And that those ideas of being free from various external constraints lead to better ideas about how we may want to impose external constraints such as threats of punishment to those who would abuse those kinds of free will.

  1. The mathematics was not useful because it was too abstract.  I enjoyed learning it, and still read advanced mathematics occasionally, but I never once used any of it in real life, except to teach calculus to others who did not need it except to pass a test. I did not become a physicist, though I still read physics in scientific journals, so also happy I learned it, but not of practical value to me. The computer science was almost all obsolete before I used any of it. However, it did get me a career that lasted many years and proved to be an opening to many spheres of knowledge beyond just the world of computers.

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