"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, March 26, 2007

The utility of philosophy

One of my life's many ironies is that this blog is hosted by Google, the Microsoft of the Internet. Its founders seem to have no use for religion, and the company's culture doesn't seem hospitable even to philosophizing. But they get their comeuppances too.

Thus Brandon of Siris, whom I read regularly, has called our attention to "a lovely take-down" of an ignorant dismissal of philosophy by a Google employee, who wrote at his blog:

Science is of far greater use than philosophy, unless of course you’re looking to party through 4 years of college - only then does philosophy have a legitimate purpose.

As a philosophy major, I used to hear that sort of thing from engineering and pre-med types, as well as from the ordinary West Indians with whom I labored at a Jewish deli for years. My co-workers were philosophical enough in their own way: whenever I'd fulminate against some unjustice at the hands of our employer, they'd reply: "You t'ink they give a f___, mahn?" But I tried in vain to persuade my fellow students that they were philosophizing just by adducing thoughts about the utility of philosophy. As always, l'esprit d'escalier is sweeter. Here's the takedown, of the sort I wish I had had the wit to issue:

Of course, if one were to engage in ad hominem reasoning, one might wonder what arcane knowledge it is that philosophers acquire that leads them, in the writer's opinion, to gain a reputation for partying, whereas computer scientists, more or less universally, have a reputation for generally being amongst the dullest people in the world. Relatedly, although more to the point, we might ask to what end science and philosophy, respectively, might be useful, and how we might judge the character of that end, as well as their efficacy at achieving it.

Further, even if we were to establish that philosophy is less useful than science, we might wonder how that would legitimate the judgment that it is of no use, unless you want to 'party through 4 years of college'. However, one might have to know that the conclusion 'x is of no use, unless you want to party through 4 years of college' does not follow from the premise 'y is of greater use than x' in order to wonder that, and that might require exposure to philosophy, which, ex hypothesi, is of no use at all, unless, of course, you want to party through 4 years of college. We might also want to note that the claim(s) that this claim is offered in support of is a distinctively philosophical claim, that

There is a clear line of demarcation between machine learning and artificial intelligence...
[t]he question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim...

Conceptual distinctions between learning and the property of having a mind? Claims about what it is interesting, presumably in a prescriptive sense, to study? The normative questions are, it would seem, inescapable, but if you haven't partied your way through four years, or in my case, a third of three years and then most of another two, of college, I guess that just wouldn't occur to you. Finally, note that those years of partying seem to have given me a sense of propriety - I wouldn't dream of saying that struggling and failing to teach computers to be able to sort text by crude semantic content was a worthless enterprise.

Ah, charity. But here's charity's reward, in the form of a remark by philosopher Kit Fine:

Philosophy is the strangest of subjects: it aims at rigour and yet is unable to establish any results; it attempts to deal with the most profound questions and yet constantly finds itself preoccupied with the trivialities of language; and it claims to be of great relevance to rational enquiry and the conduct of our life and yet is almost completely ignored. But perhaps what is strangest of all is the passion and intensity with which it is pursued by those who have fallen in its grip.

I know what you mean, Kit. But I suggest that the passion comes from what philosophy can be said, etymologically, to be: "love of wisdom." The subject's apparently issueless rigor and pedantry stems from the desire to get arguments, in the logical sense of the term, right. When healthy, that desire is but a technical specification of a passion for inquiry into and truth about the largest matters of human concern. When such a thing as wisdom is recognized, that passion just is the love of wisdom.

But as Fine says, philosophy is almost completely ignored in the culture at large. That, I believe, is only partly because most people find neither material benefit nor sensible pleasure in philosophy; people behave all the time in ways that bring them neither, yet see nothing untoward about that. The real reason, in most cases, is that they are not educated enough to know they need education, or even to see it when exposed to it. Once again, Brandon has dug up just the quote, this time from Chesterton:

Now what we observe about the whole current culture of journalism and general discussion is that people do not know how to begin to think. Not only is their thinking at third and fourth hand, but it always starts about three-quarters of the way through the process. Men do not know where their own thoughts came from. They do not know what their own words imply. They come in at the end of every controversy and know nothing of where it began or what it is all about. They are constantly assuming certain absolutes, which, if correctly defined, would strike even themselves as being not absolutes but absurdities. To think thus is to be in a tangle; to go on thinking is to be in more and more of a tangle. And at the back of all there is always something understood; which is really something misunderstood.

That is why I do not discuss philosophy, or for that matter theology, with most people I spend time with. Unless they ask me, and manifest their sincerity by, e.g., paying me tuition, it's just too much thankless work to get at—never mind clear up—the misunderstanding "at the back of it all." Heck, it's often thankless work in the case of sincere inquirers!

Of course there's always that blessed minority who "get it" when it comes to philosophy. A few even visit this blog, and I thank them. But there are limits to what we can do. Apropos of Lourdes and other miracle sites, it was once said: "For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not, no explanation is possible." I'm not sure that's true about miracles; but substitute "love wisdom" for "believe," and it's true of philosophy.
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