Thursday, June 2, 2011

Deconstructed Philosophy

I came across an interesting opinion piece today and I found this quote particularly interesting (and it should be interesting to those who are wondering why nobody seems to listen to philosophers any more).
"Philosophy, it seems to me, has spoked its own wheel in its hyper-late-post-modern deconstruction that somehow deconstructed itself. It broke down in such a way that the philosopher is now so divorced from real life and sucked into a simulated one (modelled) that often he has nothing constructive to say on current events."
I think that that right there sums up what is wrong with philosophy, it has distanced itself so far from real life and current events that it is no longer applicable. I think, quite seriously, that the reason why philosophers (collectively, not individually) are no longer taken seriously is because they collectively stopped answering questions. Anyone who had to suffer through David "The billiard ball did not cause the other to move" Hume, Søren "Believe against all reason" Kierkegaard, Friedrich "There is no free-will" Nietzsche and Peter "I actually have a very good argument if you will listen to me because if you think about it long enough I'm sure that my ideas will convince you that your natural inclinations of morality and basic human needs and desires are all wrong and misguided and supremely immoral because when you consider the utility it makes sense when you weigh the interests of others against your own inclinations then it makes perfect sense it's just that the details are a little fuzzy" Singer will understand.

What it comes down to is that the field of study known as philosophy stopped offering answers or solutions to practical problems, and got caught up in arguing about trivial things (such as trying to prove that we don't exist). The reason why this happened is because there was another outlet, namely science (mostly physics) where people could turn for answers. For example, in the case of billiard balls, Hume's response was "we can't tell if one billiard ball caused the other to move". Newton's response, on the other hand, was "pi = pf --> p1i = p1f + p2f". Well that may be slightly incomprehensible so some people, but at least it was an answer, and furthermore Newton could go on to explain about the sun and the moon and the stars and the planets and things falling and things flying through the air and light and a lot of other cool things. If you go ask a philosopher about that stuff they will probably say, "Well we can't actually see anything, and you really aren't talking to me." It's no wonder people stopped listening to philosophers.

Until this problem is fixed in philosophy you will never read a news story that quotes a philosopher (think about it, how many news stories are there that contain the phrase "Dr. So-and-So, a noted scientist/physicist/astronomer/biologist/chemist/sociologist said...", but how many have quotes from a "noted philosopher"?). This is because when news people (or people in general) want an answer to a question they go ask a scientist, never a philosopher. I can't count the number of times I met someone who found out that I study physics and they instantly say "Can I ask you about ...?", but I never have anyone say that when the find out that I also study philosophy. Mostly they just look at me funny.

Now I do realize that a lot of professional philosophers do do important work, and there are several of my former professors that I have tremendous respect for, but until philosophy in general stops arguing that there is no truth and there are no answers and is capable of providing real world applications to what they are talking about (i.e. solving real problems), then it will forever remain deconstructed and broken.

[PS: I know that there are some philosophers out there who are trying to fix this, but unfortunately there are not enough of them. There are some indications that this is changing, but it may take a while until you regularly have quotes from "noted philosophers" in news stories.]


  1.  I am not a philosopher so I won't make any attempt to weigh in on the first part of Jonathan's comment, but I will say that I can't ever remember seeing a philosopher quoted in the news, while I have seen mathematicians and statisticians quoted (although I generally less often than physicists, chemists, etc.).  Of course my evidence is purely anecdotal, but I think there is something to be said for at least the mental image the average person has of how relevant a philosopher is to their daily life.

  2. I would like to see some evidence that the average Nobel laureate questions the usefulness of modern philosophy.  And I would also like to know what the average Nobel laureate's conception of modern philosophy as a discipline is like.

    Anyway, I would be much happier with a poll of Nobel laureates than with a poll of ordinary people or reporters.  I'm not sure that ordinary people (as a whole) would say that modern physicists are especially relevant either.  LHC?  Why should anyone fund that?!?  SETI?  Why should anyone fund that?!?  If ordinary people denied that modern physicists are relevant, would that make modern physics irrelevant?

    As to news, although it is hardly conclusive, Google Fight has "news philosopher" beating "news mathematician" pretty soundly, 2.7 million to 890,000.  Maybe that's because of all the articles about how philosophers are never in the news ... ;)

  3. QL42,
    Science by its very nature deconstructs and solves problems always in a limited domain.  Newton works well in isotropic space.  The scientific method is exceptionally successful and almost all human arts has to adapt to this method.  Philosophy (and religion) are not amicable to deconstruction, yet both apply the method to get attention of “the practical” folks, those who are mundanely dealing with living a life.  We turn the key (press a button) to start the car and do not ask any questions about whether it will start, and if started do not care the physics and engineering of the engine, motors, batteries and what not, as long as there are no red lights on the dashboard, and even then, many could care less as that stupid oil light flickers a bit for a few minutes!
    I will agree with Johnathan that philosophers usually do not resort to subjectivity implied in your essay.  And, I will agree with you that philosophers usually confound the situation so badly that I might as well go for rapture!

  4. Wow, you really are getting to the heart of what bothers me about philosophy. I agree with you generally. But I have some minor (maybe major) quibbles (though I'm not a philosopher).

    1. I don't think there's anything wrong with the idea that there is no absolute truth (and I don't think this is why philosophy is failing). I'm much more concerned about everyone's insistence that THEY have the truth. This is a symptom of classical philosophies, various religions, and every other dogma. From the scientific point of view (I've harped on this before) scientists have the idea that mathematics can perfectly capture real world phenomena. I have no idea why they think this as I see no evidence to support that conclusion. Mathematics is an abstraction, though certainly a useful one.

    2. This leads to my next quibble. Personally, I think the reason philosophy is failing, is the same reason engineers make good money and are in constant demand. That is, propositional logic doesn't work perfectly. In other words, my claim is that logic, just like math (since it's built on logic) is an abstraction. It doesn't, and never has perfectly explained the real world. Now don't get me wrong, science, through it's use of math has done better than philosophy primarily through the use of experimental falsification in the real world. But my claim is still that it isn't perfect.

    So I agree with you that the focus on real world problems is critical and people want answers to real problems. But in my opinion, the reason philosophy fails is because there is no mechanism to account for the error (noise) in the abstraction (logic). The ONLY reason science gets away with this same limitation is because engineers have figured out how to make things work DESPITE the errors. Newton's equations wouldn't be worth the paper they're written on if we didn't have a way of accounting for real world error.

    My take on science is that it is the practical applications of platonic forms. We create mathematical equations for perfect triangles, perfect spheres, perfect phenomena, etc. And we hope that if we develop mathematics for all these "forms" and put them together we can interpret the real world. But here's the catch...there ARE NO perfect spheres, triangles, etc. in the real world.

    As soon as philosophy develops a hybrid approach to answering its questions that's based on logic AND some technique to account for errors in the logic it will be of more practical value. But I don't think that one more group of people claiming to have THE truth, even for pragmatic issues, is going to fix the problem.

  5. I think at the end of the day economics will set things straight.  If philosophers *or* scientists decide to solve problems that are waisting people's time and/or money the funding will die naturally.  However, if they study things that actually make a difference in the world for someone else money will find a way to them.  And like natural selection: statistically those who do a desirable service for society will receive funding and survive and those who are helping nobody but themselves will lose funding and find themselves unemployed.  

    Money in this way keeps many people from living in Neverland all day.  Physicists keep getting billions of dollars from the government for things like CERN or NASA or etc... because they have a track record that delivers services in return that makes the investment worth it.   If this ever stops being the case the government/private sector will spend as much on things like CERN as it does for funding abstract art. (Nothing against abstract art.)

  6. So I am convinced the "invisible hand" will keep us all in check.

  7. On reflection, I think it is worth asking whether people ever took philosophers seriously in the first place.

  8. JS,

    People of science and engineering heve let people of woodoo (politics and dismal (economics)disciplines control them and then they have hard time understanding why they are poor.  Average  sci/eng may make $50 an hour; average woodoo & dismal fellow would bill at $200 to $400 an hour plus expenses and that includes haircuts.

  9. JS,
    Here is the key difference between sci/eng and voodoo/dismal disciplines.
    The axioms of  voodoo and dismal disciplines are as we chose them to be: i.e. – all men are created equal, or, everyone is a resource of the state; or, supply and demand laws of economics chiseled into all until when one goes for an MBA program, where, he/she is taught how to manipulate supply and demand both.
    As long as bright minds can be manipulated and controlled through a job, or a jargon, there is really no hope except to philosophize, even at the most practical level of existence.

  10. Yeah, sometimes I wonder that myself. Maybe it's not the "Great Conversation" after all, but the "Great Joke".

  11. What you observe is always imperfect, hence your objectivity is equally imperfect as well as your mind constructs of “absolute truth” is imperfect; and finally, you must refrain from jumping to “we experience” from “I observe” as it is absolutely and totally imperfect

  12. On your second point I have to agree, and upon reflection I think that was what I was ultimately driving at. With no mechanism for resolving disputes the perception is that there is no resolution. If there is no way of settling disagreements (i.e. answering questions) then why would we ask them in the first place. Having spoken to many people who had interacted with philosophy on a minimal level (by taking one or two classes to even majoring in it) the general perception is not that philosophy does a good job at answering questions conditionally, but that it doesn't answer questions at all. If there was the expectation that the questions could be answered, or should be answered, then that would go a long way in preventing the misconceptions and problems that I mentioned.

    If you think about it, why did Bertrand Russell conclude his book The Problems of Philosophy by saying that the value of philosophy lies in asking questions, but not in getting answers to the questions? If you (by "you" I mean a general "you" not you specifically) can answer that question then you can understand why philosophy has seemed to run off the rails and is "divorced from real life" and "has nothing constructive to say on current events". Having read Bertrand Russell's book and considering in context I understand what he was getting at, but I have also seen how that principle (i.e. the purpose of philosophy is to ask questions, but not to answer them) has been applied over and over again, until we have the apparent disconnect we see today.

    Now I realize that it may seem like I am painting all philosophers with the same brush, but I do realize that there are several philosophers who do good work, but all that good work doesn't seem to get out of their own field. Added to that are the philosophers who perpetuate the bad teachings, but there is no mechanism for correction (for example, I know a particular philosopher who happens to be the resident "philosopher of science" at a certain university. The only problem is that he knows next to nothing about science. I asked him one day how much math he knew and his response was "I know enough to balance my check book." And he was supposed to be the department expert on the "philosophy of science", which meant he taught the thee classes offered on the history of science and philosophy. It's kind of like being the resident expert on Shakespeare, but not knowing any English. That one example would not mean anything except that it happens in conjunction with all the other examples I have mentioned. A single grasshopper doesn't make a plague, but you can't have a plague without a single grasshopper. OK enough with my Zen, and back to the subject.).

    As for what questions I think philosophers should be answering, well, I don't know if I know enough to say what questions they should be answering, but I think that returning answering questions, or at least giving the perception that philosophy is about answering questions, and not about arguing questions without resolve, then we might be able to talk about which questions should be answered.

    On a personal note, I have noticed that some of the newer philosophy students (graduate students) and young faculty, including you Jonathan, are better at addressing questions and trying to resolve issues, than previous generations. Many of my older professors were more content to throw out a question, and let the students argue about it without any semblance of answering it (such as asking about Descartes' demon and then not bothering to explain in depth Descartes' own answer and resolution, let alone all the answers that came afterwards). I think that apart from you I have only heard one (1) philosopher tell someone they were wrong.

  13. Might that not be a bigger problem with the news than with philosophy?  But in any case if you read the New York Times you'll find quotes and editorials from philosophers quite regularly.

  14. Empirical Philosophy is attempting to do just that.  One can debate whether conducting tests as to what actual groups intuitions are actually can solve moral questions or resolve long standing problems.  But it's probably considerably better than the appeal to arm chair philosopher's intuitions.  

    However the underlying problem is in assuming philosophy is just about answers rather than thinking.  


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