Taking Philosophy Seriously

Philosophy houses a lot of absurdities, making it difficult to take the discipline seriously. 

With questions like Does the nothing noth? and Does our subjective consciousness really exist? being non-ironically entertained, it is no wonder that people have developed an averse attitude against it. Many critics have gone as far as saying that philosophy is all made up nonsense (you might be able to guess which word they actually use in their complaints). 

Although I share their disappointment in the lack of rigor that is sometimes displayed, I ultimately disagree with their conclusion that philosophy should thus not be taken seriously.

To argue a case in defense of philosophy, today’s post will focus on showing how the discipline has profound and unignorable implications in all areas of academia and life–including those that seem immune from its reach.

Perhaps the area of knowledge that is most evidently dependent on philosophy is art. The very concept of art depends on inexplicit philosophical assumptions. Yes, people might have an intuitive understanding of what they mean when they refer to art–but whenever people try to explicitly formulate an explanation of the concept, they run into an unavoidable philosophical wall.

Why? Because the two approaches to explaining what art is are inseparable from philosophy.

One can either provide a discriminatory account of art, or an all-encompassing one. Either some things cannot be art, or everything can be art. If one is to defend the former notion, reasons why these exclusions take place must be provided; and any such argument will, by definition, be a metaphysical one–for nothing in nature can tell us whether such criteria is correct or not. 

On the other hand, if one was to defend the all-inclusive notion of art (i.e., that everything can be art), then a new type of argument must be offered: the defender of all-inclusive art must explain why the concept of art should not be eliminated. After all, if everything can be art, then there is no point in using the word art, because it could refer to anything! A museum of art would simply be a museum of everything. Of course, defenders of such view could reply by explaining that everything can be art, but not everything is art because there are conditions for this ‘transformation into art‘ to take place. Evidently, defending the legitimacy of these conditions would lead us right back to philosophy.

A lot of the critiques against philosophy come from scientists, who stand proud of the certainty conferred by their sophisticated experiments and empirical evidence. While science enjoys the fruits of its tangible evidence, philosophy is forever stuck with its abstract arguments… or so the idea goes.

What scientists might not realize is that their theories are ampliative: their statements about reality extend beyond what their empirical evidence has allowed them to observe. For them to explain why their laws are actual laws that will continue holding, and why their experiments ‘support’ their theories, they can only turn to philosophy. 

The discussion of how scientists use evidence and what that evidence implies about the world is one of the main practical tasks that philosophy is concerned with–and of course, this applies not only to the natural sciences, but to social sciences as well. The latter is of course plagued with countless additional assumptions that stem from its reduced exactness and its often unpredictable subject matter: humans.

Interestingly, there is more philosophy can do for science. 

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy focused on untestable theories that describe reality. Thus, if there are aspects about the world that we currently find untestable, they stop being science (for empirical evidence can tell us nothing about them), and they fall into the domains of philosophy. This is the case of theories like the cosmological multiverse and string theory, which tend to be mistakenly categorized as scientific. 

Religion and Faith
Despite the numerous similarities between religion and philosophy, religious people tend to be particularly skeptical of the latter. This can be seen even in the Bible itself, for Colossians 2:8 tells us to “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit…” Although the warning is not without merit (one could argue that no words better describe the Hegelian school than vain deceit), it will soon become clear that religion is closely intertwined with philosophy.

For instance, the truth value of the proposition that the Bible is the word of God necessarily depends on a philosophical argument. As the stereotype goes, an uncritical Christian will reply to the question of how they know the Bible to be the word of God with a simple because the Bible says so, probably citing 2 Timothy 3:16-17. This is clearly circular, for it begs the question. Thus, the legitimacy of the Bible depends on the philosophical concept of inference to the best explanation–i.e., believing in the Bible makes sense because it is the best explanation for the available evidence (with available evidence possibly ranging from archeological to self-referential explananda). Whether the Bible being legitimate is indeed the best explanation for these explananda cannot be determined by refering to the Bible, for again, that would be circular–thus, even the most devout and unquestioning Christians will find themselves relying on philosophical tools, showing once more that no area of knowledge is free from its reach. 

All that said, it seems that there is one field where philosophy might not have a lot of influence: Mathematics. Indeed, math enjoys an air of superiority over other disciplines for the certainty that its rigorous proofs provide. Unlike in science, once a proof is found, it cannot be overturned–it’s settled. Of course, questions about the nature of Mathematics might arise–particularly those wondering whether Mathematical entities exist (and if so, in what sense)–however, they seem unimportant for mathematicians to carry out their duties. 

Or do they?

Interestingly, the work of David Deutsch reveals that even the work of mathematicians depends on a philosophical assumption that might not be self-evident to most. In his book The Fabric of Reality, Deutsch explains that although the subject matter of math is absolutely necessary truths, the reward we get from doing Mathematics is not certainty. Proofs are reliable only if the physical entities they employ (i.e., symbols and computers) have the properties of the abstract entities they claim to represent. 

Thus, if a critic argues that the symbols and the machines the mathematician employs will not lead to an adequate proof, the mathematician will have to reply with a combination of scientific and philosophical arguments of why he believes the critic to be mistaken. As mentioned above, all scientific argument stems from philosophical assumptions, so once again, the dependence on philosophy becomes evident. 

I hope this brief reflection has shown that the dependence of all areas of knowledge in philosophy requires everyone to take philosophy seriously. Of course, not all philosophy will be coherent–in fact, most of it will probably continue being the nonsense that many perceive it to be–but as long as these fields rely on philosophy to remain coherent, dismissing its virtues can only lead to contradiction.