Why Philosophy Helps

Massimo Pigliucci has written a fine post today about irrationality and bad behavior in the so-called "community of reason."  Having regularly followed atheist blogs for about 5 years now, this strikes a deep chord with me. I'm much less familiar with "real world" skeptic/atheist groups than Massimo is (I imagine they're much better), but I am continually amazed by the online shenanigans. Massimo has done an excellent job of listing the sins.

One of Massimo's constructive proposals is "more philosophy."  I've been thinking the same thing lately, because I find the philosophically-trained members of the atheist/skeptic community, as a group, less guilty of the various sins in Massimo's list. Of course, it doesn't follow they're "the fairest of them all". Individual non-philosophers can be just as (or more) sagacious and fair-minded. Some philosophers are less sagacious and less fair-minded. But on the whole, people who study/teach/write philosophy seem to be (on average) more reasonable and reflective.  (Wouldn't it be nice to have some X-Phi data to back that up?)

Which makes me wonder -- why does philosophy help?  Some of the reasons are obvious, but some aren't.  Starting at the less obvious end--

(1) I started out in philosophy as a student of the history of philosophy. So I've spent insane amounts of time reading Kant, Hegel, Plato, Aristotle, etc.  Back in the day, I used to periodically wonder what the point was. If only I'd been studying science, instead of spending hours and hours of my life reading Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (twice!), trying to figure out what Aristotle said, and so on.  But these days I see a huge payoff, not just in terms of substance (Hegel and Aristotle said some smart things!), but in the state of mind that results from all that difficult exegesis.  After hours, months, years of reading painfully difficult texts, you develop the habit of working hard on understanding what others are saying. The pay off, for members of the "community of reason," is a willingness to work hard to "get" another's meaning, rather than rushing immediately into combat. 

(2) Half, or more than half, the work of philosophy is to "problematize" the seemingly simple and easy.  Any philosophy problem worth thinking about is vastly more complex than immediately meets the eye.  So one benefit you get from studying/teaching/writing philosophy is appreciating the difficulty of problems -- being less prone to premature pretend solutions. Lots of the sins in Massimo's list are sins of premature solution (so to speak).

(3) One of the things I like most about teaching philosophy is that in a philosophy class people with hugely different viewpoints are expected to sit in a room together and discuss matters politely and reasonably.  In my animal rights class, vegans talk to hunters--without anyone going berserk. In my course on the meaning of life, religious students talk about life with atheists--all in a mode of mutual respect.  In a contemporary moral problems class, if you're skilled, you can get pro-life and pro-choice students to talk to each other calmly, and even see eye-to-eye on some issues.  This is great preparation for being part of an inclusive "community of reason," one in which nobody's sent into exile just for the "crime" of accommodationism, thinking one way or another about sexual harassment policies, etc.

(4) Then there are the more obvious benefits.  In any philosophy program, you will take classes on logic and critical thinking, developing debate skills that ought to innoculate you against the various diseases of internet debate--all the wanton straw-manning, ad-hom-ing, etc. etc. In the heat of debate we can all succumb, but after studying philosophy one is at least more aware of the ideal we should aspire to.

(5) And of course in philosophy one studies the great issues that are central topics for atheists and skeptics--the existence of God, the relationship between religion and morality, the nature of science, free will, and so on.

This list of benefits might convince someone to take a philosophy class (one hopes!), but it has another purpose.  A new school year is about to begin.  I know that a philosophy professor or two reads this blog.  We are particularly vulnerable, as a group, to "what's the point?" type thoughts.  Well, there you are.  What we do in philosophy classes helps people becomes better citizens of the "community of reason."  I believe this is really true, and I find it motivating.

And now I'll get back to preparing for the fall semester--no, it's not too soon.


Notung said...

Excellent post, as usual.

I especially like 2) - something that lots of non-philosophers have a hard time understanding, which is why we often get angry accusations that we're 'nitpicking' or that we're 'legitimising' societal evils, etc.

Faust said...

Yes 2) is difficult, but I'm happy to be guilty of occasionally making things more complicated than necessary given that most of the time people take far to much for granted!

Great post, great link.

Deepak Shetty said...

But on the whole, people who study/teach/write philosophy seem to be (on average) more reasonable and reflective.
But probably not more humble hmm?(that's a joke)

Ill also stipulate that some philosophy is really challenging and really interesting(for me philosophy of morals and ethics).

But I think (some) philosophers don't really understand the objections that are being made to philosophers/philosophy.
For e.g. some would tout as a big deal that science can't prove science - or the empirical method can never prove "truth". I suppose this is an example of "problematizing" things. An interesting theoretical problem -
But practically speaking, who cares? The same philosopher when he flies in an airplane bets his life on the very same science.

And besides as much as I like the philosophy of morals - there is no real way to evaluate competing ideas using philosophy.

Torquil Macneil said...

"But practically speaking, who cares? The same philosopher when he flies in an airplane bets his life on the very same science."

But the arguments on atheist and free though sites are rarely about the best approach to aerodynamics, but the broader, philosophical claims made by scientists and others and sometimes based on a peculiar over-confidence in the explanatory powers of of science (large though they are), so we should care.

Deepak Shetty said...

but the broader, philosophical claims made by scientists
Some scientists(and or atheists) abuse philosophy(incorrectly) -

And some philosophers (and or believers) abuse science - not just the creationists - but the sophisticated ones who see God "guiding" evolution or the ones who think God twiddles his thumbs while waiting for a parallel universe to sprout humans or the ones who state quantum indeterminacy therefore God and so on.
Complain about both or neither, or be laughed at for your double standards.

Jack said...

I took philosophy courses, and the two most valuable things I got out of them. 1) The realization that so much of what I thought and believed actually came FROM philosophers. These great thinkers really did build the entire web of comprehension, still under construction, on which we live. It did not spring de novo into our minds. It makes us.

2) There is no greater pleasure than becoming aware of parts of this web you did not know before. It is like receiving your inheritance.