06 February 2020

From Lawrence, Sunday PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Does philosophy give us answers?

Does philosophy give us answers?

Today we are aware that a number of issues and problems in philosophy are due to the vagaries of our natural language. This question is at the forefront of confusion in philosophy as much as “what is the meaning of life?” But if people expect to find the answer on how to build a better mouse trap in philosophy, don’t bother it’s not going to happen.

And the reason why it won’t happen is because it is not the business of philosophy to build better mouse traps and make people rich in the meantime. In other words what is at issue is: what is the question or questions we are asking. Firstly, are we asking questions that have an answer and are we asking questions that can be answered by the philosophical method?

Before I go on, have a look at this interview by Timothy Williamson | The Role of Philosophy which you can find on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/c1ihZHdfXSA .

A pressing problem we have about language is precisely what we understand philosophy to be. To begin with philosophy is not a recipe book that we use to do things such as making a cake or build bridges.  And to compound our problem many people refer to many activities as philosophy so before we can even talk about philosophy we have to entangle what it is we are talking about. The philosophy I am talking about is close to what is colloquially referred to as analytical philosophy, even though these days this does not mean much. What matters is that by philosophy we mean a methodology: for our purposes it is not a discipline that tells us how things are but rather an analysis of our thinking. At the heart of analytic philosophy is logic, but not exclusively. In our methodology we are always on the lookout for dilemmas, paradoxes and so on.

Philosophy is an activity about our thinking: how we think and not what to think. This is the same methodology that gave us science and jurisprudence to mention a few other examples. In a way philosophy is a quest for what is certain and this quest goes back in time to the Greek philosophers and beyond. It is obvious today that what is certain are facts, and the human challenge is how to arrive to these facts. How we arrive at these facts is the domain of philosophy (analytical philosophy) which includes the scientific method and up to an extent the jurisprudence method.

Some might object by pointing out that philosophy has always been about seeking the truth. The problem many philosophers and what we might call today scientists, ventured out to find the truth but what they came across was a morass of incongruities: the mind-body problem by Descartes or Maxwell on aether. It transpires that we’ve been looking for the facts rather than the truth all these millennia: in the chronology of things first come the facts then we can deduce the truth.

Development in philosophy, science and jurisprudence has followed a pattern of identifying what is not working with our thinking and improve what does work. It is not surprising that the law courts, although being very conservative in their thinking, work in tandem with the development of science and philosophical thinking.

By now it should be obvious that there is no such thing as philosophy but philosophical thinking, specifically a way of thinking a methodology. The computer in front of me is something that exists and is certain of existence independent of me, but not so philosophy. Without someone to apply the methods of philosophy to evaluate our thinking there won’t be any philosophy going on. The same with science: if there are no people applying the scientific methods to discover facts about the world (and this is not a guaranteed) there won’t be any science: but there will still be facts. So yes, if a tree falls in the forest it does make a noise even if no one is there to hear it: those sound waves breaking the sound barrier will still happen.

In the past, and certainly within living memory of some of us, there was a clear distinction between science and technology. Science was the discipline of discovering facts about the world, and by world I mean everything that is physical, and how the world functions. And technology was about applying such knowledge and principles to achieve things to serve our purposes, from building better mouse traps to better spaceships. Unfortunately the science part has been infected by that incompatible mental disease of making a profit at the point of the cost. So today we talk about science when we should be talking about technology and engineering. Technology and engineering are not exactly the domain of philosophical thinking because by that stage we would have fixed and do fix our thinking at the scientific methodology stage; but this is taking us away from our topic.

But our main enemy of philosophy today is the chauvinism we inherited from the 19th century intelligentsia when knowledge was not only compartmentalised by activity but also by institution. The scope of the gentleman scientist or philosopher were fast coming to an end. So science became what the people in the physics department at a university did or any department with the title science in it. Even today many people associate philosophy with having a philosophy degree and working a in a philosophy department. Today more philosophy is being done outside philosophy departments than all these centuries put together.

Fortunately for humanity and philosophy, philosophy is an activity that not only happens in some philosophy departments but more likely to happen in physics departments, medical research laboratories and the philosophers of today will probably have degrees in the sciences, art, law and even art and music.

What is relevant for us is when looking for an answer to a question we need to distinguish between the history of ideas and philosophy and the philosophical and scientific method that may show us the way we need to think. The history of ideas and philosophy are very interesting subject especially since we can understand why today we are where we are because we know where we came from, but they are not necessarily all that relevant today.

In a way the philosophical method including the scientific method progresses (think Khun’s paradigm shift here) by making redundant what was once thought to be the best philosophical and scientific methods. Appealing to some ghost in the machine or using a blood sucking “bicho” to solve philosophical or medical problems was never going to last forever.

Of course, this also has an element natural selection in it: valid thinking and robust procedures tend to survive longer than weaker ideas. Even though, we accept the possibility that what is a weak idea today might be a life saving idea tomorrow: there are too many examples that demonstrate this point, the washing of hands by doctors is a case in point.

And this has an important implication for us, an answer to a question might very well depend on who is asking the question, who is answering the question and when is the question being asked. What is peculiar about employing the philosophical method to answer a question is that when we find the answer the question ceases to be a philosophical question (apart from being part of the history of philosophy) and becomes a member of its natural domain and habitat for example physics, immunology, contract law and so on. It also helps that the questions we ask of our philosophical thinking or methodology do indeed fall within the domain of philosophy.

So yes once we know what philosophy we are talking about philosophy does give us answers. But philosophy can only give us philosophical answers to philosophical questions and the nature of philosophical answers is that what is an answer today might be gibberish tomorrow.



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From Lawrence, Sunday PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Does philosophy give us answers?

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