The value of philosophy is often denigrated by high profile scientists in the popular media. The most common accusation is that philosophy makes no progress and produces no useful knowledge. These criticisms reveal a deplorable ignorance of what philosophy is from otherwise well-educated scientists.
Of course, if the critics are right and philosophy isn’t contributing any knowledge, the fact so many scientists are illiterate in the subject would be beneficial. Most people are illiterate in alchemy and astrology, but this illiteracy is the natural result of the progress of human knowledge. We have discovered these subjects don’t contribute real knowledge to humanity but are based on mistaken assumptions. And therein lies the sad irony of the criticisms, because anyone who knows what philosophy does, will already see the problem.
But it’s best to start at the beginning, with the basics, by understanding what philosophy is. The word philosophy means a love of wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to discern what is true or right. How is that ability gained? Not by observing the heavens with a telescope, or by undertaking experiments in a lab in a search for information, but by first principles. By analyzing the foundations on which our endeavors for knowledge stand. What is truth? What is knowledge? How can we know if we have it?
The philosopher Mary Midgley compared philosophy to plumbing, “It’s the way in which we service the deep infrastructure of our lives - the patterns that are taken for granted because they have not really been questioned.” Philosophy doesn’t deal with acquiring new information. The problems it solves arise not from a lack of information, but a lack of understanding of the concept we already freely use in our daily lives. The progress of philosophy is to enhance understanding, eliminate contradiction and increase conceptual clarity. And once this process is complete, we dissolve the problem. Once the mistaken assumption is found, the question becomes incoherent, and we move on to the next question.
The movement of philosophy is not to the edge of our information and then to reach beyond to gather more facts. Philosophy moves to the foundation of our thinking, the concepts we are using, and inspects them for defects. Rather than moving forward or upward, the movement of philosophy is to always remain current, to ensure the intellectual ground we stand on is clear and free of defects. Philosophy concerns itself with conceptual and methodological foundations and as these foundations change, so do the issues philosophers are concerned with. The progress philosophy makes is in the constant refinement of the content of our thought, the assumptions we make, and the logic we employ.
As Bertrand Russell said, “Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation”.
And like the plumbing infrastructure which is unseen and unthought of, the contributions of philosophy become second nature to people. They form the new unquestioned assumptions of our culture. People educated in a culture which values science take it for granted that science is a natural thing for human society to do. But they remain unaware of the origins of this pervasive and influential cultural activity. In general, the modern cultural narrative imagines that at some point in the past, we called science natural philosophy, and this method of inquiry was so effective, we stopped calling it philosophy and started calling it science.
This narrative however, bears little resemblance to the historical facts. What really happened was that philosophical research contributed the conceptual and methodological foundations which caused us to begin thinking in scientific ways, and this type of thinking then caused us to engage in scientific activity. The concepts and methods which make modern science possible were the product of extensive philosophical research during the renaissance and enlightenment periods.
And the same story can be told about developments in many of our cultural, political and religious institutions. And this type of research is the same activity that philosophers have been doing since the birth of Western philosophy with the ancient Greeks and continue to do today. This is called doing metaphysics and epistemology.
Philosophy then, can be thought of as the activity of thinking clearly and rigorously about issues of fundamental importance. It investigates truths about ourselves, the world, our relationship to it, and how we should live. It teaches us how to engage in rational inquiry, the principles of logic, and the history of intellectual development. This improves writing, speaking and reasoning skills. It allows us to express complex ideas in clear language, evaluate arguments, and create coalitions between parties with overlapping interests. These are not skills that can be achieved by scientific or technological progress.
Training in philosophy produces the confidence to develop and defend positions in ethics. politics, metaphysics and indeed any other topic. It also gives the intellectual humility to understand the weakness and limitations of those positions. It removes the tendency to dogmatism and allows us to hold a reasoned stance on essential and perennial questions. Without philosophical skills we are fated to be unable to think clearly about how things are at a fundamental level. Or to articulate our own views, becoming defensive when confronted with arguments we don’t know how to answer.
Understanding that this is what philosophy is and what it does, is the answer to the critics. We take their criticism on board, we deconstruct its substance, we expose the logical defects, isolate the mistaken assumptions, and the criticism dissolves. We can’t avoid engaging in philosophy. Our only choice is to do it well or do it badly.