Saturday, August 18, 2007

Is Philosophy Useful?

Phillip Atkinson said in the pretext to his A Definition of Philosophy - The Study of Understanding that philosophy must become a science before it is considered a useful discipline.

As I am paid to listen to radio you would only do so if you were paid, I encountered on Canberra's ABC 666's morning Saturday show with Greg Bayliss, an interview with Jeanette Kennett, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, ANU.

Kennett said the Centre does try to have an influence and is doing so in public policy in various ways. She said the Centre last year did a report for the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet on dual use dilemmas in science; one of her colleagues is developing a new patent system to make it easier to get pharmaceuticals companies to make their research available so third world countries will benefit from cheaper drugs.

As a trained philosopher who does not get paid to think, I understand the frustration of Mr Atkinson that philosophy is barely understood and often maligned as not useful. This was demonstrated sadly by Bayliss who appeared quite intrigued that there was such a thing as a philosopher let alone actually understood what one did. He understood the word ethics however, not deeply though enough to know that he was dealing with a serious discipline. Still, he failed to really get anything much out of her other than that she lived inside her own mind as a kid and she took long enough to start a family before she finished her degree.

I also offer as an example our own Samuel Douglas who for all intents and purposes is a professional philosopher currently or at least headed in that direction.

Finally I evoke Karl Marx and Michel Foucault who not only being philosophers, managed to become almost ideological through out academia generally, or at least the humanities.

I agree that society at large does not take philosophy seriously. I feel however that it can not be maintained that academically and politically it is thought to be useless. Areas of philosophy are scientific such as logic, while as a discipline it has both created modern science in the one instance, and then conformed to be more scientific. This is where we may have three theories:

  1. Mr Atkinson proposed that philosophy needs to become more scientific
  2. Mr Hill has been claimed to be saying that philosophy is scientific because it created science
  3. I am suggesting that philosophy has already become more scientific

I accept that mine and Martin's theories may be the same thing or very similar, but I call upon him to post his hypothesis as this may be grounds for an interesting discussion. If that fails, then we should turn to the more general question: is philosophy useful?


j.b.willoughby said...

This is my first post and I am only a lowly 2nd year student so you’ll have to forgive me if I show a remarkable lack of understanding, but I was under the impression that Science was really defined by method. Or rather, science is anything that employs scientific method (empirically falsifying hypotheses). And therefore the study that employs this method in its most un-bastardised form (physics) would be the most science-y study. As I have never had any experience of philosophers going out of their way to empirically falsify they’re claims, I am not sure how you would justify philosophy as a science, let alone ‘conformed to be more scientific’ (or science-y) then science.

But the real question is of the usefulness of philosophy. However I suppose this late night post is only attempting to curb the current trend of what it perceives to be, philosophy trying to jump on the scientific band wagon because science is more respected.

Philosophy is not science. I mean how would one go about falsifying “weather it is a good thing to go shooting one Indian to save ten?”

As for the claim that philosophy should be more scientific (science-y), how? How can one falsify I think therefore I am and would that mean anything to anyone else? (Forgive me for essentially making the same argument twice.)

In fact, the usefulness of philosophy should not be based on its extrinsic value (if the world even exists outside yourself, or even if there is a ‘yourself’.) but on the value it brings the individual, (thing? single moment of consciousness?) who is studying it, (or not studying it as the case very well may be.)

At this time, I just think philosophy should be what it is, the rational (consistent) evaluation of substantive statements. But being young, as I am, I reserve the right to change my mind on a whim.

good night people.

James Bernard Willoughby

MH said...

Firstly, welcome to Mr Willoughby. I hope to find the time to read through your contribution later today, but I have to finish editing a paper this morning. I’m sure you’ll find plenty of people who will willingly rip apart anything you chose the contribute, but don’t let that put you off making regular contributions.

Secondly, Rowan. Sorry to have to skip through your argument, but I want to correct the record as to my actual position on the question of whether philosophy needs to be more scientific. My position, which I hope to find the time in the next couple of weeks to articulate, is that science needs to acknowledge it’s origin in philosophy. I am reluctant to state this position any more highly at the present time.

Rowan Blyth said...

Everybody has the right to change their mind on a whim.

Philosophy could be at the edges of our understanding, such as ethics or metaphysics, and also those points where we can only have reasonable suspicion on while science is ultimately rooted in what can be discerned, even if it is not actually known yet. There was a point when the two were more closely related, and in fact one was a sub category of the other. It is indisputable that science came from philosophy historically. As J.B. Willoughby said, science is defined by its method. This method is ultimately philosophical in origin. I do not see how the two can not be compatible given this.

Philosophy however also encompasses those things which can be proven to be true a priori: namely logic; some have also argued ethics. I will leave mathematics alone currently as I feel it would only be clutter. I guess if these are those things which are true necessarily, then philosophy deals with areas at the very core of our understanding. Its foundational I would think, including the foundations of science. In fact those areas at the limits of our knowledge also form first principals including those which tell us that empiricism is a good idea. Here I guess is a good argument in support of Mr. Hills currently rumoured argument that science should be more philosophical. Anyway, philosophy deals with first principals which is the foundation of our knowledge on which scientific method is based.

Philosophy is rarely found by itself. Meta-philosophy, like we are currently engaged is a minority. Usually its subjects, which include science, mathematics and the humanities all use scientific method to some degree. This by default means philosophy is applying scientific method, and as such most of philosophy has become more scientific. As much as everyone knows the human sciences are questionable in a chromatic array of ways, they have adopted scientific method, including history, sociology and their likes. We do not see Plutarch style history do well in academia these days and likewise Hobbes would not pass as a serious political theory these days. (I’m not 100% sold on my Hobbes comment due to any number of factors but it is true to enough that you should get my point. The Plutarch one in brimming over with trueness; ask any historical scientist.)

Philosophy also deals with those things which are subjectively true. At any rate the ‘foundations argument’ and this have proven that not all philosophy has become or needs to be more scientific. The ‘foundations argument’ alone disproves Mr Atkinson’s statement that philosophy needs to be more scientific because of the circularity of trying to explain empirically something that is basic to empiricism. In fact this also proves that science is philosophical because it is reliant on it for first principals.

Congratulations Mr Hill, you win this round. I thought that I was going to be able to use the last discussion for some momentum and generate some activity on the site, but I guess Ray Hadley has actually eroded my brain. What I said was kind of true, and isn’t that the real truth?

So what benefit would science have of being more philosophical?
Can we be arrogant as a discipline because we are the most basic and how useful is this knowledge?

Philosophy is ‘…the rational (consistent) evaluation of substantive statements’. Yes this is true, but not only substantive statements if you are to include the later Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin, as well as Foucault’s ‘archaeology’. So I’m not sure if this is sufficient as a description. Maybe philosophy is the rational (consistent) evaluation of statements?

Continental Guy said...

1.) In a democratic society, philosophy can be one of the most democratizing aspects of education. Philosophy, more so than any other discipline, hones skills of argumentation and analysis (which can boosts people's bullshit detectors against gov/corporate propaganda and empty rhetoric.

2.) Philosophy facilitates the democratic process by creating a society with more flexible thinkers, who have been trained to question assumptions. Questioning assumptions is essential for scientific, technological, and social progress.

3.) Contemplating ethics (and of course acting them out) is the perhaps the most important endeavor (beyond mere survival) human beings can engage in.

Other than the specific training one needs to do (or attain) x job, philosophy is the most useful of all the disciplines.