Above is a photo I took of my nephew a couple of years ago. He’s seven now. I spent an age trying to think of an appropriate image to garnish this post with and then it hit me: my nephew is a philosopher. He really is, although he doesn’t realise it of course. Right now he has an unquenchable wonder and curiosity for understanding the world and himself; he is a reason junkie, he relentlessly pursues wisdom, sometimes to degrees that frustrate him and others around him. He questions everything, and I mean everything. He has a burning desire to understand what makes X true, and Y false, and to establish the current and perhaps permanent limits of our knowledge. May he never lose his love of wisdom, his desire to understand himself and the world for it will serve him well. He is an inspiration to me, and through him I’m regularly reminded of how incredibly exciting it is to exist.
The following, by philosopher Richard Carrier, is the best explanation I have read of what philosophy is (or can be) and of why it isn’t pointless, useless, or stupid. His article, which I have re-posted below in its entirety because it’s so good (I hope he doesn’t mind), is the annotated text from his presentation at Skepticon 6.
Is Philosophy Stupid?
Abstract: A lot of philosophical zombie blood has been spilled over the uselessness, aimlessness, or pointlessness of philosophy. What’s it for? Is it all just bunk? Arbitrary opinions in fancy dress? A quibbling over silly minutiae? Does it make progress? Can’t we just replace it all with science? Is it too esoteric to be useful or even meaningful in light of real world issues? Can ordinary people do anything with it? Where did it come from? What the hell is it? Even Stephen Hawking says philosophy is dead. Is it? Or did he really just say that in a book mostly filled with his own conclusions inphilosophy? Find out! I’ll answer all these questions and more.
Table of Contents
Summary of Slideshow
Following is the annotated text of the animated presentation. A PDF version if the slideshow (without animations) is available here. Not everything said or every point made during the presentation is included below, but the most salient elements are below. To instead watch the actual talk as given, see here.
“Philosophy is the field that hasn’t progressed in 2000 years, whereas science has philosophical speculations about physics and the nature of science are not particularly useful, and have had little or no impact upon progress in [science].”
“Most of us do not spend most of our time worrying about [the big] questions, but almost all of us worry about them some of the time. Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”
Ironically, Krauss and Hawking wrote their dismissals of philosophy in books that in fact were philosophy. Neither actually proved their conclusions scientifically in those books, but merely presented possible models of reality given the limited scientific facts now known, as premises, and speculating from there.
So they said philosophy is dead and makes no progress, while claiming to make important new progress in philosophy.
“Except for a patina of twenty-first century modernity, in the form of logic and language, philosophy is exactly the same now as it ever was; it has made no progress whatsoever. We philosophers wrestle with the exact same problems the Pre-Socratics wrestled with [so we must concede] philosophy’s inability to solve any philosophical problem, ever.”
Is Philosophy Stupid? We often hear…
“Philosophy is useless”
“… divorced from reality”
“… too esoteric and obscure”
“… just pointless nitpicking over trivial minutiae”
“… gets nowhere, teaches and discovers nothing”
“… just opinion masquerading as knowledge”
But must distinguish…
Philosophy as practiced in the halls of academia
… vs. what philosophy was invented to be
… and what it should and could be
… and sometimes is.
The word’s original meaning tells us something if what it originally was and was meant to be.
Philo + Sophia
Love of Wisdom
Understanding Yourself and the World
You will often hear, even from philosophers:
“Philosophy is only concerned with the analysis of concepts, not with facts”
Most philosophy is conceptual, it’s a study of conceptual space or logical space or possibility space. But even that has factual ramifications (as I’ll show later), and that’s still not all of philosophy. Philosophy directly answers factual questions, too.
Atheism, for example, is a conclusion about what is factually true, yet it is a philosophical conclusion (there has never been a paper in a science journal proving atheism). Likewise naturalism, physicalism, and all sorts of factual questions, from whether we have free will, to what is morally true.
What exists and what doesn’t.
What its nature is or isn’t.
How much we can trust what we claim to know.
How should we behave—and organize society.
What we should infer from the facts of science to answer all of the above.
How we should integrate those facts with others, e.g. from history, journalism, personal experience.
Philosophy answers questions like…
“Who am I?”
“What should I do with my life? How can I be happy?”
“Do I have the right friends? Are these bad friends?”
“Am I a bad person? Should I be living my life differently?”
“What’s worth making sacrifices for? How much sacrifice?”
“Am I in love? What is love?”
“Is there a god / afterlife / cosmic plan?”
Philosophy = Worldview
Thus, as I said, analysis of concepts is only a part of philosophy.
Philosophy is the quest for understanding, of yourself and the world. It is what you use to construct and test your philosophy of life, your worldview. And as such it very much concerns itself with questions of fact that science has not or cannot gain access to or conclusively resolve.
So are you doing it well or poorly?
Skillfully or incompetently?
Informedly or ignorantly?
If you want to be on the right side of those three questions, you have to learn philosophy and how to do it well, which means skillfully and Informedly.
Scientists like Krauss and Hawking thus sound a lot like the character Evil from the movie Time Bandits. He wanted a map to the universe, which is basically what scientists claim they are producing but philosophy is not.
“When I have the map, I will be free, and the world will be different, because I have understanding…of digital watches. And soon I shall have understanding of video cassette recorders and car telephones. And when I have understanding of them, I shall have understanding of computers. And when I have understanding of computers, I shall be the Supreme Being!”
Evil was a terrible philosopher.
Scientists often exhibit not just the arrogance but similar bad reasoning. In the character, as in this quote, these are only exaggerated for comic effect.
Here is a much better criticism of philosophy…
“Philosophy is just not oriented to the outlook of someone who needs to resolve the issue, implement the corresponding solution, and then find out – possibly fatally – whether they got it right or wrong. Philosophy doesn’t resolve things, it compiles positions and arguments. It would be one matter if I could just look up the standard answer and find that, lo and behold, it is correct. But philosophy, which hasn’t come to conclusions and moved on from cognitive reductions that I regard as relatively simple, doesn’t seem very likely to build complex correct structures of conclusions.”
Here he really means not philosophy the subject of study, but philosophy as now conducted by the academic community.
The latter does fail to distinguish good from bad and settled from unsettled in the domain of results.
And it fails to synthesize well-tested results and centralize them for easy consultation.
Some philosophers share these criticisms and more. Most importantly, Mario Bunge, Philosophy in Crisis: The Need for Reconstruction.
Before I get to that, first a little history…
Aristotle (348 – 286 B.C.) invented modern philosophy, by taking the disorganized practice of philosophy at the time and formalizing it into a systematic field of study.
Aristotle effectively gave us the Six Parts of Philosophy:
•(1) Epistemology (or theory of knowledge = the study of how we know what we know and what it means to say you know something, and how we are to tell the difference between true and false knowledge and reliable and unreliable ways of knowing)
•(2) Physics (physika, which at the time actually meant “Science,” i.e. all knowledge regarding the natural world, not just what we mean by “physics” today)
•(3) Metaphysics (literally “after physics,” a term developed later for what Aristotle called “first philosophy,” not because it was studied first but because it dealt with the most fundamental questions of existence; but the word “metaphysics” translated into modern language means “after science,” meaning what we are to infer about the nature of human beings and the worldafter we’ve taken into account everything we’ve learned from science—atheism is an example of a conclusion in metaphysics: it is not itself a scientific result, but an inference we make from what we have discovered scientifically, thus a conclusion we reach after doing all the relevant science we can do)
•(4) Aesthetics (or theory of art and beauty = the study of what is beautiful and ugly and why and what effects that has on us and society and what all that entails about ourselves and the world)
•(5) Ethics (or moral theory = the study of what is right and wrong and why and how to tell the difference and why we should care; in short, the study of how we should behave, toward ourselves and each other)
•(6) Politics (or political theory = the study of what sort of government we should have and why and every other question of how we should organize ourselves as a community; ultimately, it’s the study of the use and regulation of power, and what patterns are best to enforce or fight for, and which should be opposed or torn down)
Science depends on conclusions (or else unexamined assumptions) in epistemology.
Metaphysics depends on the findings of science.
Aesthetics depends on conclusions (or unexamined assumptions) in metaphysics, science, and epistemology.
Ethics depends on conclusions (or unexamined assumptions) in aesthetics, metaphysics, and all the rest.
Politics depends on conclusions (or unexamined assumptions) in ethics as well as all the rest.
And epistemology depends on conclusions in politics, since only political philosophy can defend free speech, free thought, free inquiry, or arrive at how these should be limited (e.g. outlawing unethical scientific research).
So you can’t actually make arguments or reach conclusions in one of these domains without having settled all the others.
Science is just philosophy with better data. Which means philosophy is just science with less data.
For what I’m about to say next, you’ll find the evidence and scholarship in my chapter on the history of science in the John Loftus anthology The End of Christianity.
Contrary to popular conception, ancient science (which was one of the six parts of philosophy) had mathematical laws, precise observation, and controlled experiments.
The Scientific Revolution (which occurred during the 17th Century) did not introduce any new methods for doing science. Instead it recognized less reliable methods as less reliable (and attenuated belief to reliability).
It remained philosophy.
In fact: science has always been philosophy.
What we now call science was still called philosophy all the way up to the 20th century. It could be designated natural philosophy, or physical or biological philosophy, or experimental philosophy, etc. But still, philosophy. The word “scientist” didn’t exist until the 1830s (and wasn’t popular until the 1890s).
Thus Galileo, Newton, Lavoisier, even Maxwell and Darwin, were all known as natural philosophers, never or rarely as scientists. They all published some of their scientific findings in philosophy journals. The first science journal, published by the Royal Society of Britain, retains the same title it has always held since the age of Newton: Philosophical Transactions. Even now scientists get doctorates in “philosophy” (Ph.D.).
P.M. Harman, The Natural Philosophy of James Clerk Maxwell, discusses how James Clerk Maxwell, often held up as the Einstein of the 19th Century, discover of electromagnetic radiation and a great deal else, considered everything he did “natural philosophy,” from his speculative notions now largely forgotten to his revered scientific findings. The only distinction he made was how well proved each conclusion was. But it was all part of his overall natural philosophy.
In my slides I show the title page of a common school science textbook published in 1860, the same decade Darwin published his theory of evolution. It’s title: School Compendium of Natural and Experimental Philosophy: Embracing the Elementary Principles of Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Hydraulics, Pneumatics, Acoustics, Pyronomics, Optics, Electricity, Galvanism, Magnetism, Electro-Magnetism, Magneto-Electricity, and Astronomy — Contains Also a Description of the Steam and Locomotive Engines, also of the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph.
Darwin’s theory of evolution was commonly referred to as a discovery in physical philosophy or philosophy of biology, and as the philosophy of evolution. So even in Darwin’s day the demarcation was not between science and philosophy, but between two kinds of philosophy. In fact it was a spectrum of reliability, based on certainty of results, which in turn was based on access to data.
The shift in the 20th Century away from this conception was never justified.
Science today is just the best philosophy we have, not because it’s free of error or fraud, but because it works on questions we have the best data to answer. But that does not leave the rest of philosophy with no data—just data insufficient to meet scientific standards of certainty. But there are many degrees of certainty below the scientific (e.g. historical, journalistic, personal, and philosophical).
Hence atheism is a highly certain factual conclusion, but not a scientific conclusion (there is no scientific paper proving it).
Scientific hypothesis formation is also, really, philosophy (it’s just advanced metaphysics). Superstring Theory is a prominent example. That’s actually philosophy, not science (yet). It’s very good philosophy, developed by very well-informed and competent philosophers who also happen to be scientists, and like James Clerk Maxwell they are working really hard to find a way to test it and make it a scientific conclusion. Scientific hypothesis formation is also, really, philosophy (it’s just advanced metaphysics). Superstring Theory is a prominent example. That’s actually philosophy, not science (yet). It’s very good philosophy, developed by very well-informed and competent philosophers who also happen to be scientists, and like James Clerk Maxwell they are working really hard to find a way to test it and make it a scientific conclusion. But right now, it’s still just philosophy, regardless of whether physicists will admit this.
So that’s the backstory. The demarcation between science and philosophy is ultimately exaggerated. It is solely a difference of object of study (concept-space vs. fact-space) and degree of evidence (degrees of probability vs. scientific certainty).
So now to Mario Bunge’s Ten Criticisms of contemporary academic philosophy, which has largely deviated from what philosophy was invented to be and could and should be.
• Tenure-Chasing Supplants Substantive Contributions
• Confusion between Philosophizing & Chronicling
• Insular Obscurity / Inaccessibility (to outsiders)
• Obsession with Language too much over Solving Real-World Problems
• Idealism vs. Realism and Reductionism
• Too Many Miniproblems & Fashionable Academic Games
• Poor Enforcement of Validity / Methodology
• Unsystematic (vs. System Building & Ensuring Findings are Worldview Coherent)
• Detachment from Intellectual Engines of Modern Civilization (science, technology, and real-world ideologies that affect mass human thought and action)
• Ivory Tower Syndrome (not talking to experts in other departments and getting knowledge and questions to explore from them or helping them)
How do you tell good philosophy from bad? How do you find the philosophy that avoids all ten of Bunge’s defect criteria? Philosophy as an academic field simply isn’t making any effort to. Philosophy needs to be rigorously demarcated from pseudo-philosophy, and philosophical error needs to be more consistently ferreted out? Just as science is from pseudo-science, and just as science tries to find and fix its mistakes. Not all philosophy is pseudo-philosophy, or in error, but there is no easy way to tell (it’s all published in the same journals and academic presses, and presented at the same conferences, and wins the same professorships).
Error is just error: like in science, identifying and eliminating it is a form of progress.
What is pseudo-philosophy?
Philosophy that relies on fallacious arguments to a conclusion, and/or relies on factually false or undemonstrated premises. And isn’t corrected when discovered.
All supernaturalist religion is pseudo-philosophy. Religious philosophy is to philosophy what “creation science” is to science. And some philosophers are willing to admit this, including one of the most renowned atheist philosophers of religion this decade. He gave up on it, and called it out…
“I found the [philosophical] arguments [in aid of religion] so execrably awful and pointless that they bored and disgusted me I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position—no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest. I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it. I’ve turned the philosophy of religion courses over to a colleague.”
“Goodbye to All That”
Secular Outpost Online
The same is often true of secular philosophy.
It’s only when you demarcate philosophy from pseudo-Philosophy that progress in philosophy becomes apparent.
Like science, the vast majority of “progress” in philosophy consists of tiny incremental advances that look small or pointless, but together amount to a significant body of knowledge. (Just skim through science journals to see how true this is of any science.)
Like, for example, the discovery of a measure of potato chip crispness:
Julian Vincent, “The Quantification of Crispness,” Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 78 (1998): 162-68.
Or empirically testing how random flipping a coin is:
Joseph Ford, “How random is a coin toss?” Physics Today 36.4 (1983): 40–47.
Or conducting a massive, expensive, years-long study to verify what everyone of sense already considers obvious, that prayer doesn’t work:
H. Benson et al., “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer,” American Heart Journal 151.4 (April 2006): 934–42.
Proving something that’s obvious just to answer delusional people sounds like a lot of what philosophy does, too.
There are also tons of science papers documenting really minor facts or once again duplicating a mundane result about a drug or astrophysical measurement, or proving some really tiny and obscure thing. So philosophy should be judged with the same charity.
Philosopher Toni Vogel Carey summarized some ways philosophy actually makes progress as a field, contrary to the claims of scientists like Hawking or Krauss, in “Is Philosophy Progressive”for Philosophy Now Online. His two most important categories of philosophical progress were:
1 — Progress as Destruction
Philosophy every year eliminates options from logical space (by demonstrating incoherence internally or with well-established evidence). As a result, options in philosophy are enormously more constrained now than they were a hundred or even fifty years ago. No respectable philosophy journal (that isn’t basically specializing in pseudo-philosophy) will publish on the philosophy of magic, numerology, mysticism, astral planes, angels, demons, gods, souls, or miracles—all except as counterfactual thought experiments—or serious arguments for, or assuming, Platonism, Idealism, etc.
Remember what Dietrich said about the Pre-Socratics? So it is no more a valid criticism to say philosophy has made no progress because we are still asking some of the same questions in philosophy they were, than it is to say that science has made no progress because we are still asking some of the same questions in science they were (and we are: plenty of scientific questions they attempted answers for remain unanswered today).
2 — Progress as Clarification
New advances in conceptual understanding are accumulated in philosophy every year, new knowledge regarding Distinctions / Possibilities / Meaning & Implications, and Exposing Assumptions. And these advances have had real-world impact, for example on legal decisions that affect the whole of America and the course of human political and legal history, like Roe v. Wade and Kitzmiller v. Dover.
Less obvious examples of progress in philosophy include all the philosophy that gets cleverly labeled something else to hide what it really is, like scientific speculation and theorizing (Quantum Theory, Cosmological Theory [e.g. Ekpyriotic Big Bang Theory], Superstring Theory, Quantum Loop Gravity Theory) and mathematical theorems & discoveries (discoveries in concept-space).
…and on top of all that, are all the advances in philosophy regarding “Facts Most Probable” (remember atheism? And the frontiers of probabilistic discovery now are naturalism and physicalism, which is an advance on the mere conclusion of atheism).
So … not all that different from science. Most scientific progress consists of destruction: eliminating or narrowing hypotheses. Much of it consists of clarifying the available options given the known facts. The rest consists of building an edifice of highly certain conclusions to use in understanding and improving the world. Philosophy differs in the last case in only two ways: its edifice of conclusions consists of highly certain conclusions about what exists (and does not exist) in concept-space, and conclusions about the empirical facts of the world that differ from the findings of science only in being less certain.
Major general advances made by modern philosophy include.
Naturalism (in the domain of metaphysics)
Evidentialism (in the domain of epistemology)
vs. mysticism, authoritarianism, dogmatism, a priori facts, faith
Consequentialism (in the domain of ethics)
vs. authoritarianism / absolutism
Democracy / Human Rights (in the domain of politics)
vs. fascism, aristocracy, autocracy, Athenian democracy
Aesthetic Relativism (In the domain of aesthetics)
vs. cosmic aesthetics / aesthetics as morality
Major Specific advances made by modern philosophy include…
From the Late 19th Century…
• Set Theory
• Symbolic Logic
• Reduction of Mathematics to Axioms & Logic (Russell)
• Transfinite Mathematics (Cantor)
From the 20th Century…
• Game Theory
• Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems / Dan Willard’s Solutions
• Modal Logic
• Bayesian Epistemology
Just google them to learn more.
Small but important discoveries made by modern philosophy include…
• Connecting meaning of a statement with its truth conditions (and corresponding advances in defining “truth”)
• Distinction between sentences and propositions (and its significance for cognitive science and AI research)
• Demarcation of qualia as fundamental attribute of consciousness
• Compatibilism (proving that desirable versions of responsibility, self-determination and personal freedom are compatible with total causal determinism)
• More rigorous defenses of atheism
As just one of the best examples, consider the recent treatise by Judea Pearl, Causality: Models, Reasoning, and Inference (Cambridge University Press, 2000). (This is, incidentally, the father of the journalist Daniel Pearl murdered in Pakistan.)
Here is that book’s quite accurate description:
“a comprehensive exposition of modern analysis of causation. It shows how causality has grown from a nebulous concept into a mathematical theory with significant applications in the fields of statistics, artificial intelligence, philosophy, cognitive science, and the health and social sciences [including business, epidemiology and economics]. Pearl presents a unified account of the probabilistic, manipulative, counterfactual and structural approaches to causation, and devises simple mathematical tools for analyzing the relationships between causal connections, statistical associations, actions and observations. This book will be of interest to professionals and students in a wide variety of fields. Anyone who wishes to elucidate meaningful relationships from data, predict effects of actions and policies, assess explanations of reported events, or form theories of causal understanding and causal speech will find this book stimulating and invaluable.”
Remember Hawking saying philosophy is dead and makes no progress? This book alone refutes him, before we even get to the loads of other examples.
Indeed, remember Krauss saying philosophy of science contributed nothing to science? I am fairly certain even his field employs Pearl’s results. Philosophy has changed the way Krauss’s colleagues do physics and he doesn’t even know it.
One might still ask why philosophy appears to make so much less progress than science, relatively speaking. But this is not an inherent feature of philosophy. It’s the result of three rather obvious factors..
• Vastly fewer personnel are devoted to philosophy than to science.
• Vastly fewer resources are as well.
• And a pervasive lack of focus (as the Bunge criteria indicate, most philosophers are wasting their time, so most philosophy is not progressive or minimally so).
That it makes progress and adds to human knowledge is not the only thing establishing philosophy as a major and important field of inquiry. It also trains its experts in skills that might not be unique to philosophy, but are peculiarly emphasized in it far more than in any other field, and philosophers who are properly trained are far more expert in these skills (far, far more) than most scientists are, or almost anyone else.
What skills are particular to philosophy?
• Logics (building accurate logical models & fallacy-detection)
• Conceptology (the study of ideas and the meaning and implications of words and concepts)
• Conciliation (completing inferences from the results of science & other fields, determining the most probable)
• Axiology (completing inferences from moral, aesthetic, and political values).
But what about philosophy for the common man and woman?
We don’t need to be scientists or do science to broadly understand the results of science and apply it in our daily lives and personal philosophy. In exactly the same way, we don’t need to be philosophers or do philosophy at an expert or professional level to broadly understand the results of philosophy and apply it in our daily lives and personal philosophy. We just have to figure out how to tell good philosophy from bad. The academy should be helping everyone do that.
They aren’t. But in the meantime you can do your best to work around that.
See below for a fuller bibliography and recommended reading lists for understanding philosophy.
But step one is to get up to speed on the basic skills and concepts of philosophy, and the best thing for that is The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods. Most textbooks in philosophy are really just history of philosophy. It’s very rare to find a textbook that actually aims to teach you to philosophize well instead. This is the best one on a the market.
But that’s just the skeleton. You need the flesh to go around it. And the only book on the market doing that by attempting to satisfy the Bunge criteria, is my book Sense and Goodness without God. That I think you will find essential not because it’s necessarily right about everything (there is surely some philosophical error in there, and I would very much like it corrected if there is), but because it exemplifies what philosophy should be doing, and gets you introduced to a complete, coherent, evidence-based worldview, which you can use as a model for building your own, or use until you do.
Reproduced from Richard Carrier’s original article ‘Is Philosophy Stupid?‘