What is Philosophy For?

Philosophy imageI’ve questioned a lot of “philosophers” over the years, asking what is modern philosophy good for and haven’t really gotten a lot of good answers.  Sure, they’ll toss out all the things that the ancient philosophers have done, but what has philosophy done for us lately?

Anyhow, I came across this short video on YouTube and wanted to address what it has to say.  I still find philosophy, at least as I see it practiced most often, to be entirely problematic.  I’m not saying that philosophy can’t be valid or useful, only that in practice, at least as I see it practiced, it just isn’t all people pretend it’s cracked up to be.

First, go watch the video.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Let’s just go through this in order, shall we?  First, they say that philosophy is about asking the “big questions” and points out a couple of them.  “What is the meaning of life?”  “What’s a job for?”  “How should society be arranged?”  He argues that only with sound answers to these questions can we direct our energies meaningfully.  Unfortunately, he’s wrong.  Most of these questions have no good answers, and by that I mean that they have no answers that can be demonstrated to be actually valid or true.  Individual people might have personal answers that they find valuable, but these vary from person to person.  Philosophy has no means of actually finding objectively true solutions to these questions because no such thing actually exists.  He tries to pretend that philosophers are being brave in asking big questions because they’re likely to be ridiculed.  No, professional philosophers are desperately trying to find someone… anyone… who will pay them for sitting around and thinking and trying to pretend that what they think up is actually valuable.

But let’s move on.  He does make a good point about common sense being terribly uncommon, but what, exactly, is common sense anyhow?  It’s not something that is easy to define and therefore, demonstrate actually exists.  The video argues that people ought to think for themselves, but that’s what causes the error in the first place, isn’t it?  That’s why we have defined laws of logic and methodologies for locating irrationality.  It’s why we understand what logical fallacies are.  It’s like telling scientists to think for themselves and not bother with the scientific method.

Next, it says that we are mentally confused.  I’ll agree with that.  Philosophy is interested in self-knowledge, but we have to go beyond that, we need to be able to step back beyond the self and evaluate whether or not the things that we claim to know are actually knowledge, or simply belief and faith and wishful thinking.

Continuing on, he says we have muddled ideas about what makes us happy, but I find that to be entirely irrelevant.  If we’re going to use philosophy to come to actual conclusions about important question in the real world, what makes us happy has nothing to do with it.  Just like in science, how we feel about gravity has no bearing on the reality of gravity, what makes people feel good has nothing to do with philosophical truths.

Lastly, he says we panic and lose perspective.  I’d be in agreement with that until he throws it all out the window and claims that philosophers are really good at knowing what’s important and what is not.  Clearly that’s just not true, otherwise you wouldn’t have so much disagreement between philosophers.  The idea that Zeno’s losses somehow make unencumbering his life a philosophical concept is absurd.  If his leg got chopped off, would he conclude that hopping around on one foot was the better path of life?

There is a reason why we don’t have modern philosophers on the payroll, for the same reason that we try not to have priests and rabbis on the payroll.  They aren’t saying anything worth listening to by and large.  They aren’t solving problems in any way that’s demonstrable or effective.  In fact, they are more like theologians than they are like scientists and I think we need a lot more scientists, people who are more interested in demonstrable reality and objective evidence than in personal opinion and wishful thinking.

So that brings us back to those supposed big questions.  What is the meaning of life?  There isn’t one, at least not an inherent one. We all give our own lives meaning and no meaning is inherently better than any other.  You don’t need to sit on a mountain top and noodle your navel to come up with that one.  What’s a job for?  For making money so you can live and be a productive member of society.  How should society be arranged?  However society wishes, such that society operates as the majority of its members are comfortable living within this arrangement.  These are answers that we should ask, but not questions that can be demonstrated by the philosophers.  In fact that’s really the problem with modern philosophy, it’s just people using big words to express opinions that are wholly undefended and unsubstantiated.  Where philosophy might be useful is in pointing out irrational arguments and logical fallacies, but if they did that, they might have to “know themselves” and realize that they’re often engaging in exactly the same thing.

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