13 September 2013

from Lawrence, SATURDAY PhiloMadrid meeting: The risks of philosophy: what do we miss by being philosophers?

Dear Friends,

We've got a bumper meeting this Saturday (6.60pm Centro Segoviano) with
three essays from Miguel, Ruel and myself. As always I have not looked
at the other two essays and I understand that Miguel was writing late
into the night today so don't be surprised if we come up with a bunch of
different arguments on this week's:

The risks of philosophy: what do we miss by being philosophers?

From Miguel - Here it is:

Hello Lawrence,
Below is the link to the essay I wrote re the topic on Saturday´s

See you on Saturday.

So see you Saturday,

Best Lawrence

The risks of philosophy: what do we miss by being philosophers?

Strictly speaking, we really voted for the topic The risks of
philosophy, but part of the thinking behind this topic was the idea of
what philosophers might miss out on by virtue of being philosophers.

The risks of philosophy are no less varied than any other mental
activity human beings get up to. One of those risks is that our
reasoning might be based on flawed information or data. Think of the
mess we can get into if we thought that the world was flat. Thinking
that the world was flat like a piece of toast we reasonably would be
afraid to venture far away from where we live. But now imaging that the
world is round, it does not matter which way we go we know a priori that
we are going to remain on the surface of the world no matter how far we go.

But like all mental endeavours, such as science, our biggest risk is
that out methodology might be flawed. This is not about flawed data, but
rather the process we subject such data to. Is the Gaussian curve or the
bell curve really the beginning and end all for science, or the
principle of excluded middle (P or –P) for philosophy. And then one day
we come across the fat tail distribution in the form of a tsunami
crushing into our nuclear reactor, or quantum mechanics which challenges
our excluded middle and end up with something being, at the same time,
both a wave and a particle and yet a particle is nowhere near being a wave.

And then there are the everyday being-run-over-by-a-bus type of risks.
For philosophers, that every day risk would be language. Indeed language
is a key risk for philosophy partly because language is our main tool
for doing philosophy. The problem is that what we think in our head
needs to be transferred into a structure that can be exchanged with
other people. Now given that human brains are wired in the same way
(philosophy is not really concerned with brains that require medical
attention), but how we communicate with others is less well defined.
Thus, the problems we have communicating with each other socially are
the same issues, and therefore risks, for philosophers.

Moreover, knowledge cannot be bounded by borders so we have the added
risk in philosophy of having to translate impressive and great ideas
from one natural language into another natural language. The brave
attempt to formalise language into a mathematical language at the turn
of the twentieth century was indeed a brave attempt but one not destined
to go far. One of the problems is that our ideas are not universally
true and objective. How on Earth can the preceding idea be translated
into mathematical form when one day one of our ideas might very well be
universally true and objective and on another day just wrong, unlike for
example the number Pi?

And because we cannot put our philosophical ideas into a test tube and
give them a whirl in a centrifuge to see what comes out, we have no
other option but the long way of communicating our ideas through
language. Indeed we seem fated to take the long way. The compensation is
that at the end of the road will really be worthy of the claim of having
a valid philosophical idea. For example today we know beyond any
reasonable doubt that no matter how much we pad marriage as a religious
righteousness, forcing young girls into marriage is the ultimate in
immorality. Or today we know that the separation of powers is the best
form of government we can have. Our sense of what is right and just has
developed much more than Plato's sense of right and justice.

As for the question what are we risking by being philosophers? or what
are we missing out on by being philosophers? the answer is no less
imposing that what are the risks of philosophy? One of the risks that
exist today is that we just physically cannot be familiar with all the
knowledge out there. And this is true even of scientists. And the more
our knowledge is derived through empirical means the harder it will
become for us to establish the truth of any a priori ideas. Today we
just have more means and more data to test any a priori truths. The
problem is that it is unlikely that every philosopher can physically be
acquainted with all these tools and models.

And if this not bad enough, even the philosophical goal posts have
changed somewhat. Any philosopher who want to pursue issues in
philosophy of mind, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and the concept of
life must, out of necessity, be acquainted with issues in biology, the
brain, evolution, quantum physics, physics, human behaviour and so on.
This is not because philosophers must compete in the discovery of the
next cancer cure, but rather because the next cancer cure will introduce
new ethical dilemmas and issues that probably do not exist today. Today
an argument based on authority is not good enough; today we hold those
in authority accountable but we cannot do that if we are not familiar
with the grounds those in authority have to tread.

So the philosopher, whether professional or just an ordinary mortal
philosopher, has to face the challenge that their repertoire of rational
tools must now include familiarity with the scientific method. Today we
know that there are no such things as forms which we only have access to
through shadows. Today DNA is the key to the essence of life including
human life. And we no longer need to concern ourselves with we duality
of a mind (soul) and body. Today we know that the brain is a very
complex organ and many scientists are busy trying to unravel the secrets
that lie within the boundaries of the human and biological brain. In
other words, today we don't need to create ghosts to understand the
human being.

I would argue that philosophers who do not take into account these new
parameters of modern philosophy stand the risk of ending up doing
history of ideas and history of philosophy rather than the guardians of
our rational methodology.

An even more serious risk we face as individuals is that just because
today we have a myriad of means to communicate our ideas with others we
might fall into the trap in believing that our thinking is acceptable as
philosophy even if we have good reviews from our peers. The test for
philosophical rigor today is more important than ever. We can safely
assume that today someone somewhere has, is or is going to think about
the very same idea we have postulated on. But there is also a further
negative consequence for mass distribution of ideas today. Mass
distribution also means mass information overload and our ideas can
easily be overwhelmed by the size of the available bits of information.
Basically, no matter how good our philosophy might be, we stand a very
high risk of being crowded out by other equally good ideas proposed by
other philosophers.

One objection to my arguments above that if we have to be conversant in
the sciences is that we would be scientists and not philosophers. But it
takes more than just being conversant in the sciences to be a scientist.
That is true, of course, but the scientist is interested in
understanding the world we live in. And as philosophers we are
interested in the soundness of our thinking and ideas. Our playground as
philosophers is the product of our brains as we now know.

For example, key issue in philosophy is what is the meaning of good?
What does it mean to be good? Today we are able to test in many ways a
state of affairs to see if it is good or bad. For example, to take a
very easy case, it is not good to force young girls into marriage with
male adults! This is not a difficult case. However what is more
difficult is this question: do we have a duty to do good? We can easily
argue that young girls should not be married to adult males, but if it
is not good to marry off young girls then do we have the duty to stop
adult males from marrying young girls?

To sum up, the risks of philosophy have to do with the expansion of the
philosophical method to accommodate other rational reasoning such as the
understanding of how the scientific method functions. For the
philosopher, the immediate risks are information overload and the
central stage empiricism now occupies in our life. But what might hurt
philosophy and philosophers the most is the blow to our ego when we
discover that those who today are doing philosophy do not call
themselves philosophers, and those who call themselves philosophers are
not doing anything worthwhile to call philosophy!

Best Lawrence

Take care


tel: 606081813
Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com.es/
PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
Thursday's Open Tertulia in English
Important Notice: From December 1st, the Tertulia will take place at
O'Donnells (ex-Moore's) Irish
Pub, c/ Barceló 1 (metro Tribunal)

from Lawrence, SATURDAY PhiloMadrid meeting: The risks of philosophy:
what do we miss by being philosophers?

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