Thinking about Thinking

I was sitting around one day thinking about the way some physicists in the academy, like Lawrence Krauss, have argued that the University should jettison philosophy departments. Perhaps this is in part an act of desperation in light of the renaissance of Christian Philosophy in the wake of the collapse of Positivism which has made Philosophy departments the last academic stronghold of Christianity. However, whatever the motivations, it inspired me to write a fictitious dialogue about philosophy. It’s not very good, but I have relatively low standards for what I allow myself to blog (since my blog is, after all, just an undergraduate’s blog). It may be of some interest.

Person A: Philosophy seems to be an abstract and useless or else impractical endeavor. It never translates to anything concrete and practical for our day to day lives, but consists in arguing about issues to which we will never find the solutions. I don’t see why we don’t just expel it from Western Universities.

Person B: That criticism, which I’ve heard before, strikes me as particularly queer. After all, that criticism of philosophy is, almost embarrassingly, philosophical. It is thus self-defeating. If you think that eradicating philosophy from the university would be a useful thing to do, and then you use philosophy to do justify that move, you are already committing yourself to saying that philosophy can do at least one practical and useful thing, namely, getting rid of itself.

Person A: Well, it seems that you’re being too generous to yourself there. After all, what precisely is you definition of philosophy (so that we can get clear what isn’t philosophy)?

Person B: Good question. I think the best definition I’ve ever seen comes from, it is no surprise, a philosopher; Alvin Plantinga once defined philosophy as “thinking hard about stuff”. That’s as good a definition as any I can think of.

Person A: Well, I shouldn’t say that thinking isn’t useful, especially since I would have to be committed to saying that I think thinking isn’t useful, which there would be no point in saying, much less thinking. However, it seems that on your understanding there is practically nothing which isn’t philosophy. So I will change my argument: I think that studying ‘philosophy’ is useless. Here I take philosophy to mean western philosophy, or the history of philosophy. I can illustrate by way of example what I mean by saying that it isn’t practical. Compare it, if you would, to the natural sciences; in the natural sciences progress comes within decades, taking leaps and bounds to new, exciting and uncharted territory, and it seems that all of science is practical for technological advancement and the bettering of life in all practical affairs. However, in philosophy, one can take a survey of the arguments on offer in a certain age, and then skip ahead by a few centuries, only to come back on the scene and notice that all the same issues are endlessly being argued back and forth with seemingly no hope of resolution. Philosophy seems hopelessly stagnant, and it does not contribute in any practical way to our day to day lives, and this is why I think it shouldn’t be studied or taken seriously, except perhaps as a kind of esoteric hobby.

Person B: Well, I certainly would not deny that science has become perhaps the most intellectually exciting enterprise of the last three centuries in the Western world. One about which we ought to be very proud, and concerning which it is healthy to cultivate an interest among all people as much as is possible. However, even to make the case that science is ‘good’ we find ourselves having to make philosophical arguments, and indeed, science itself is defined, as a knowledge enterprise, by it’s philosophical presumptions. It assumes things which are strictly philosophical, and in that way takes philosophy as it’s foundation. For example, that an external world exists, that it is rationally intelligible and expressible in the language of mathematics and logic, that the past is real, and a plethora of other such philosophical positions which make it possible to do ‘science’. After all, why did not the ancient Chinese, when considerably more civilized than the western world, even earlier than the western world, never develop the scientific method? The reason is simple: the Eastern philosophies informing people’s most basic presumptions about the world were just the opposite of the West’s. For instance the idea that the world is illusory (Maya) and that there is no guarantee that it will be ordered intelligibly as though rationally designed. Western Philosophy, to it’s credit, made science possible – it literally gave birth to science. Surely you wouldn’t want to say that science isn’t useful and practical, so why not admit what seems the logical corollary which is that western philosophy is useful?

Person A: I said that it didn’t seem useful to study philosophy, meaning something like western philosophy, and I maintain that that is true in the present tense. I accept that western philosophy gave us science, and so has done at least one useful thing in the past, but now that it has given us science, we can throw the rest of it out as stagnant and continue to use science alone to make progress in all things.

Person B: What guarantee have you that if we throw out philosophy now it won’t make a difference, since philosophy will never give birth to movements like the scientific revolution again if only we had kept it around long enough? Any argument you give, mind you, is bound to be speculative, tenuous, and of course ironically philosophical! Worse still, what guarantee is there that we can continue to have success in the sciences if our civilization loses sight of the intellectual foundations of science which make it possible (or even rational), the arguments for which are always in the province of philosophy? It is practically an axiom in philosophy departments that the most dangerous and destructive attitudes in the history of western civilization towards philosophy have been those which dismiss it. Philosophy is civilization’s antibody for naivety, the fruits of which would include intolerance, rash presumption, and a lack of cogent thinking altogether.

Person A: To some extent that may be true, but we can protect civilization from intolerance and such-like things by promoting education in general, and perhaps encouraging critical thinking. However, we no longer have use for the greater majority of philosophical knowledge, nor does the excessive or sustained study of philosophy seem to do us any good beyond a certain point. It seems to drop off. For instance, won’t you admit that philosophy treats of issues such as what the meaning of life is, or whether there is a God, and that about such things we simply cannot come to any consensus? If we cannot come to a consensus, and there is not even the glimmer of a reasonable hope that we will ever achieve agreement on these points, then isn’t it useless to speculate at length about these things? Who has ever gotten anything done asking such questions?

Person B: Well, first I should maintain that even in the absence of a consensus, we can come to know these things through philosophical reflection, or at least come to believe them rationally with a sufficient confidence as to feel that we have accomplished something. Moreover, so long as questions such as whether God exists are important questions to answer, and so long as the only way to answer such a question is to engage philosophy seriously, it seems as though philosophy satisfies a purpose for which nothing else can take it’s place. Moreover, it seems healthy to cultivate a love for the life of the mind, and this is nowhere more effectively done than in philosophy, and for that reason alone it seems to be useful and practical to satisfy our intellectual appetites. Finally philosophy protects us against chronological snobbery (the idea that whatever has passed away as intellectually unfashionable is sure to be wrong, while we moderns must be closer to being entirely right about many, most or all things than ancient thinkers).

Person A: Hold on, you would not seriously say that we can take some primitive thinker who, knowing nothing about science, thinks that everything comes from water (Thales) or that air is intelligent (Anaximenes) or any such thing, and suggest that we should take such things seriously? Don’t we know better than that?

Person B: We may know much more about the natural world than they did, and that is not being disputed. When Aristotle says that women have fewer teeth than men, we ought to recognize that he was simply mistaken and should have been more careful to count all the teeth in the mouth, and not just those which appear when one smiles. Surely we have made progress in such areas, and thus we know better. However, if we refuse to educate ourselves about the history of this human conversation we call ‘philosophy’, we are also bound to be blind to the absurdities of our own day. C.S. Lewis once said “They [the books of the ancients] will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.” He goes on to say that books from the future would do just as well, but they are harder to come by. Therefore one of the principle functions of reading philosophy is to better recognize the mistakes we are most likely making today, which future generations will look back on with the same kind of condescension which you propose we ought to look upon our forebears with.

Person A: Name for me, if you would, some useful insight you think we can take from the ancients.

Person B: That may be easier than you imagine. I think we can recognize that it is a less reasonable cosmogony which proposes that matter as a brute contingent explains the order and intelligibility of our world than is the cosmogony which makes air to be eternal intelligent and always in motion. I refer to the popular idea in our age that unintelligent matter naturally organizes itself, without any direction or design, into intelligible order to bring about life forms capable even of reflecting on that very order, and able to ask intelligent questions about it. Is unintelligent matter doing something apparently driven by intelligence (that is, ordering itself) a good explanation for the fact that matter later becomes intelligent? Even if air is not eternal, intelligent and always in motion (which I think we can prove philosophically), it is at least the case that in being sympathetic to the logic of the view we come to be better equipped to criticize our own ideas which are often much less reasonable, but which we have been conditioned to think reasonable because the consensus of the ‘reasonable people’ of our age seems to assure us it is. G.K. Chesterton once said “without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.” I think that’s one of the most practical things I’ve ever heard or read anyone say or write within a few hundred years of our time.

Person A: Well, you’re well educated, and it seems I am only in danger of taking you seriously if I accept that philosophy ought to be taken seriously! [Laughs] But fair enough, I take your point. I still have my reservations about philosophy though, since it seems entirely suspicious to me. I suppose I should have expected a philosopher, one who studies the art of making compelling arguments, to be well equipped to argue compellingly for the validity of philosophy, but I can’t help but feel as though this amounts to nothing more than a “philosopher’s trick”.

Person B: I am not even sure what people mean when they say a “philosopher’s trick”. For whatever it’s worth, my background in philosophy has never once introduced me to the art of philosophical trickery. Philosophers are not magicians. But perhaps I can further dispel your dissatisfaction by inviting you to press me and pursue this discussion further?

Person A: Sure, since we have the time of day to waste, I can think of no better way to waste it than to indulge this conversation a little longer. It seems to me that what I have in mind when I try to imagine what philosophy is about, is a group of old men stroking their beards and asking unanswerable questions. Questions about which we have no guarantee we will ever find an answer, and which seem to change nothing about how we will live our lives. I can illustrate with an anecdote about Thales, from a passage I read long ago. About him the passage goes:

They say that once when Thales was gazing upwards while doing astronomy, he fell into a well, and that a witty and charming Thracian serving-girl made fun of him for being eager to know the things in the heavens but failing to notice what was just behind him and right by his feet”
~Plato, Theaetetus 174a (11A9)

Philosophy, and the history of philosophy, seems to me like this. I suppose I can imagine that one can make money by pursuing philosophy by teaching it to others who are drawn by it, and thus it may be a legitimate option in terms of what one can enjoy doing while making a living from it. However, when a physicist has a Ph.D., I know exactly what it is he has a Ph.D. in, and I know what he is qualified to speak about. What, though, does a philosopher have a Ph.D. in when he/she obtains his/her Ph.D.? A doctorate in thinking? Thinking about what exactly, and what is it the philosopher has the authority to speak on?

Person B: Well, certainly philosophy has a much wider scope than physics does, and that’s due to the very nature of the discipline. However, philosophers, like physicists, don’t just get a degree in ‘Philosophy’ but in some specialized field of philosophy. Philosophy of religion, for instance, or philosophy of science. Having a Ph.D. in the philosophy of mathematics, of mind, or of language, tells me exactly what you’d be best qualified to speak on. So I can’t see the the punch, much less the point, of your question.

Person A: Say a philosopher has a doctorate in the philosophy of mathematics, what then will she be qualified to do? Certainly not math itself! What about a philosopher with a degree in the philosophy of mind? Cognitive science? Psychology? No. What about a philosopher with a degree in language – linguistics? They aren’t even fit to be grammarians! Moreover, we always hear philosophers discussing things like the meaning of life or the nature of existence, and nobody can seem to agree. There isn’t even a methodology for arriving at agreement. What more could you ask of somebody attempting to demonstrate the impracticality of a discipline.

Person B: Well, certainly topics like “what is the meaning of life” are fair game in philosophy, but that is because philosophy is the intellectually widest reaching discipline in the academic world. No question which can be asked or thought about will ever fall outside of the scope of the discipline, since the discipline is principally concerned with thinking carefully about absolutely everything and anything.

However, remember that everything from formal systems of deductive logic (sentential, predicate, etc) all belong exclusively to philosophy, and these admit of definite answers and a useful method for identifying truth-functional arguments. Moreover, it seems that Ethics is also a field peculiar to philosophy, and yet Ethics is possibly the most practical thing one can hope to learn – Physics, Biology, Accounting, and a host of others are not nearly as practical as Ethics for the living to our day to day lives.

Person A: Ethics may be practical, but philosophers argue over different ethical philosophies now as much as ever, and it seems there is no guarantee of getting anywhere by joining in the argument. Logic may admit of clear methods to move truth-functionally from premises to conclusions, but Logic is not practical except in rare cases, such as when a computer programmer needs to write a difficult series of loops, or when a lawyer needs to argue convincingly for her client. Philosophy can be useful to the extent that we can use philosophy to do things other than philosophy, but it seems that philosophy is unable to make itself useful in its own right.

Person A: Well, I shouldn’t say that thinking isn’t useful, especially since I would have to be committed to saying that I think thinking isn’t useful, which there would be no point in saying, much less thinking, if I were convicted of it’s truth. Perhaps what I meant was that studying western philosophy, or any other stream of human philosophy, seems to be impotent – it doesn’t help. Compare philosophy with the sciences, for instance, and notice that in a matter of decades science progresses by leaps and bounds. Philosophy, on the other hand, seems stagnant. One takes a survey of the arguments and positions in one century, and then skips over a few centuries and finds the same arguments being argued back and forth.

Person B: Well, I’m not so convinced that philosophy isn’t going anywhere, though I am willing to admit that it takes much more work for philosophy to stumble forward in the direction of progress than it does for the natural sciences, but that is simply because the subject matter is more difficult to deal with in philosophy than it is in the natural sciences. However, if you can excuse me this philosophical criticism of your argument, I wonder whether philosophy should be judged by the same standards as what we now call the natural sciences. Surely you would not say that since Art makes no new discoveries about itself, nor does it offer a method to adjudicate on matters of taste (which artist is better, which piece of art is more interesting, etc.), that this indicates that Art is either not useful or practical. After all, a society without art would be a society missing some important dimension of the human experience, a society starving (since love of the beautiful is as natural a human appetite as is the desire for food or rest, and in the prolonged absence of the beautiful people become mentally unstable). Surely Art has the function of appeasing our human appetites in such a way as to encourage society’s health and progress in other matters.

Person A: That is a good point. In fact, I can’t think about a civilization in which science is successfully progressing and in which there was not also art. However, perhaps we can draw an analogy from the beauty of religion here: while religion provides us with the beautiful, we don’t have to depend on religion to do so. In fact, we can extract the beauty from religion, leaving religion behind, and still retain that which religion imparted to us in the form of art styles inspired by religious stories. Can’t we now do the same with philosophy, which though it was once useful for appeasing our desire to ask the big questions, is no longer useful for anything else?

Person B: Well, I am not as confident as you that we can separate religious art from religion without losing something significant in the beauty of the art itself (certainly a Christian who believes that Christianity is true will always find the crucifix more beautiful than some sympathetic agnostic who admires the crucifix as the symbol of a story which may or may not be true). Moreover, the desire to ask the ‘big questions’ is not something which human beings have by reason of their living short unfulfilled lives, but by reason of human beings facing the existential problem of death. However, there is no solution to the problem of death, and thus it seems that in the face of death, everything but philosophy and religion seem completely impractical – I think the fear of death is sobering.



[… Use your imagination to continue the discussion].


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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