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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Is philosophy a waste of time?

John Wilkins tries to show that philosophy is not a waste of time. He describes philosophers who are anti-realists and wonders whether genes actually exist.


  1. I agree that things like anti-realism are exactly why I have a hard time taking philosophy seriously, but the problem is how do you actually argue against it other than the (perhaps apocryphal) manner of kicking a rock ala Johnson debating Berkeley?

  2. Richard Feynman (or perhaps Steven Weinberg):

    Philosophy is as useful to physicists as ornithology is to birds.

    1. Much of what philosophers do seems like commentary on various activities, as opposed to participation in those activities. I suppose someone commenting on a football game is doing something that somebody might care about, but it would be stretching it quite a bit to say that they helped score any goals.

  3. I guess this is the kind of stuff that gives philosophy a bad name; but then, arguing for realism is also doing philosophy...

  4. Larry,

    The most remembered and quoted people od the ancient world are the philosophers...
    Why is that the case...?

    1. Because there weren't no scientists in the ancient world. And because lots of people, especially philosophers, are interested in history.

    2. Larry,

      There must have been some people in the ancient world who were considered to be philosophers who were also scientist by their standards and ours...?

    3. Quest, if you mean people like Archimedes, Hippocrates, or Pliny the Elder, they are also well remembered and quoted. You must be familiar with some of the these (from Archimedes):

      Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the earth.
      Don't touch my circles.

      ... and lots of statements like the following (usually more useful than whatever speculative philosophers had to say):

      In any triangle the centre of gravity lies on the straight line joining any angle to the middle point of the opposite side.

      Any object, wholly or partially immersed in a fluid, is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object.

      Anyway, I don't think ancient philosophers are quoted significantly more often than ancient historians, biographers, poets, playwrights and public orators. I suppose poets come first, simply because they had a way with words.

    4. Professor Piotr Gąsiorowski,

      I didn't mean that they (philosophers) were 100% right... I've been thinking more in terms of the philosophers/scientist who were ahead of our current knowledge and science by more than 1000 years... you must know at least one of them...?

  5. i think there are just people who figure things out. Philosophers try to figure things out with intelligence methodology and thats why the first "scientists" were called natural philosophers.
    If its about God and stuff then its very complicated. If thats true then its the most important subject to study.
    In the pat the smartest people,who could reach academia were philosophers of Gods and mans innate nature.
    Only later did studying nature compete or supplant .
    To not say philosophy is a nobel heritage is to say science origins is not nobel.
    Some might say God is not there but some say evolutionary biology as a actual origin for nature is not there.
    Yet its being studied as we speak.

  6. Prior to the 19th century, philosophy and theology represented the best of human thought. So it is not surprising that philosophers and theologians are over-represented in our collective memories of cultural history.

    But since the industrial revolution, inventors, industrialists, and scientists have dominated cultural history. Ask a hundred people on the street whether they have heard of Ford or Edison or Einstein and whether they know what these people are famous for.

    Then ask them if they know what Russell or Dewey are famous for, or whether they can summarize the contributions of Hegel or Schopenhauer or Wittgenstein..

    1. Forget people on the street, I have had a very hard time getting a summary of the contributions of Hegel, Schopenhauer, or Wittgenstein out of philosophers.

  7. I know I'm a little late to the comment party, but here goes:

    It seems to me fairly clear that there is a huge recent push against philosophy in the scientific circles recently because philosophy is the weapon used against science when dealing with religion and religious fundamentalists. Almost none of them use science to try to promote their agenda because they no longer can - all of their claims were debunked thousands of times over with scientific research and investigation. The fundamentalist today who pushes a fundamentalist world view on creationism and other insanities begins their arguments with philosophy.

    (I apologize for the slight political nature of the following) And we, as liberals (I count myself amongst that group in general) have a serious problem with this. I mention this because it goes beyond just a use of philosophy as a fundamentalist tool and enters into a world view which generally appears to have taken hold from the 1960s and onwards. That view is that we have to be open minded about everything, including intolerance and sheer insanity, simply because we are understanding people who question everything - generally a good thing. But that is what makes so many liberals, of which I would probably count many philosophers and other academics, is that it makes us the worst kind of people to stand up to this nonsense. We are too understanding of it; we give it too much leeway; we excuse it far too much. Or, in some cases, we simply say nothing at all.

    We've seen the likes of Sam Harris and even Richard Dawkins, as well as Krauss and others talk about this phenomenon when it comes to the dangers of Jihad, as well as when it comes to the dangers of religious "understanding" - much of the critique coming from fellow liberals who appear to have a far more "philosophical" view of understanding the other side. (See the debate between Sam Harris and Chris Hedges, for instance)

    I'm not saying that questioning, or understanding, or any of that is bad. I just think that there has been a boundary erased in the last few decades between rational and irrational in philosophical terms, mostly in the liberal circles.

    (Part I)

  8. Scientists like Krauss and Hawkings, and even the now late Stenger, have been critical of this for very good reason. They are trying to deal with a rational set of ideas and facts. They aren't interested in papers one can write up which are simply thought exercises (I know Einstein famously used those, but he also provided equations to back up his ideas).

    And for their entire endeavor to be attacked by the fundamentalists who are using philosophy as a tool, and then to see no huge, public, and continual outcry from real philosophers as to the misuse of these things, puts some scientists in rather a tizzy. I venture they would have far less problems with philosophy as a general rule if the philosophers themselves were running around discrediting these fundamentalists instead of relying on public science figures themselves to do that dirty work.

    I fear that this is going to last a while, however - and much to the detriment of philosophy as a general discipline. The reason that I think this is because I see absolutely no public movement from inside philosophical circles to start having huge public debates and essays discrediting those religious fundamentalists when they misuse philosophy in such a blatant manner. I don't think that philosophers, in general, understand what is going on in that respect. In the same way that I think much damage is being done to liberalism by our not stepping up and drawing a line in a very public and continual way (it has to be continuous...not just an announcement here and there by one group or another), philosophy is going to suffer a lot of damage in the eyes of scientists and some in the public who oppose these fundamentalists on a daily basis.

    I know that I ventured into the political and generalized throughout my entire comment, but it's a bit hard to relate these reasons any other way. I really don't think that philosophy would have ever come up on the radar map of scientists were this not the case. Perhaps many scientists might not still "get" philosophy were it so, and maybe not even grant it much respect, but they probably wouldn't be going around saying that it is absolutely worthless. They wouldn't have been given the impetus say these things.

    In summation: If philosophers started standing up in a public way, and a continual way, and started to discredit these flawed notions of the fundamentalists, and the misuse of philosophy in this way, if some sort of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens of philosophy emerged (I know Dan Dennett is a philosopher but he's a literal single voice in the public eye), scientists would probably back off of criticizing philosophy entirely in the way we have recently seen.

    (Part II)