Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Thinking philosophically

I fired a trio of tweets (on the Twitters) earlier that I think deserve a little elaboration--something Twitter is pretty flawed-awful for. They are
  1. I think most people should learn to think philosophically, but most people, including many who do it, shouldn't be philosophers.
  2. And yes, I think most people should learn to think scientifically, but most people, including many who do it, shouldn't be scientists.
  3. And also yes, I think the fact that I felt a need to qualify the first tweet with the second implies a turf war between the fields.
Thinking philosophically

When I say that I think most people should learn to think philosophically, what I mean is that I think most people should learn to think seriously, reflectively, with an open mind to ideas that deserve consideration, honestly, as logically and rationally as possible, clearly, and, critically, critically.

Thinking in this way is a prerequisite to doing philosophy, but it isn't required to do philosophy, and it does not entail thinking like a philosopher, which is something I think most people should not do. Thinking like a philosopher is very specialized and should only be engaged in by philosophers, and doing it well is hard enough to formulate the second half of my opinion in that first statement--even many philosophers shouldn't be philosophers. It's simply too damn hard to do good philosophy for most with the title to do well by it, and bad philosophy is a humongous problem (for philosophy most of all, probably). Doing philosophy (qua philosophy) badly is virtually guaranteed to yield fruits that are simultaneously bombastic and nugatory, a potent and dangerous mix that can make one drunk with self-importance, particularly when what one is really best at "philosophically" is lawyering for one's thoughts, beliefs, and arguments.

Most people would benefit from thinking philosophically, but to think like philosophers would, in most cases, make them insufferable because they would also, mostly, be bad philosophers. Encouraging that by making them actual philosophers, whether for institutional reasons--someone has to teach those Phil 101 and intro logic courses to angry freshmen who don't care or want to be there, after all--or otherwise) would be even worse.

Thinking scientifically

When I say that I think most people should learn to think scientifically, I first mean that they should be thinking philosophically, per the above, since in a manner of speaking, the sciences are a specialized subdomain of philosophy. In addition, scientists must think very skeptically with a constant eye to observation, particularly observations that would falsify hypotheses. Scientists must also think statistically, and, even more than philosophers, must be ready and willing to abandon ideas that observations disconfirm.

Being a scientist, though, is also hard, especially being a good one, but it's hard in a different way than philosophy. I don't want to say that there are no bad scientists out there, or that there aren't people doing bad science--clearly there are both--but the barrier to entry into many of the sciences is significant, particularly the "hard" sciences like physics and chemistry, along with biology to an increasing degree. Particularly, one has to be good at mathematics, versed in the relevant scientific principles, and competent juggling theoretical and observational approaches, even if one specializes in one or the other.

This brings us to an important difference between science (as a specialized subdomain of philosophy) and philosophy. Being a good philosopher is hard; becoming a scientist at all is hard. This doesn't create an ideal situation for science, where we have only good scientists and good science, obviously, but it does provide a weed-out mechanism by which bad scientists are often kicked out of the system before becoming a professional in their field. (And, of note, many of the issues with bad science boil down to ethical quandaries, some of which have their deepest roots in having too little money for the research that people are doing.)

Most people, though, still shouldn't become scientists, even if they should probably think scientifically and definitely become at least basically scientifically literate (this being a necessity of the modern world, if we're honest). Not everything is research--someone has to actually go out and build things, and sell things, and do services, and so on and so forth, and science is just one niche in a working community filled with specialists that needs to be filled.

Turf war

The reason I added the second tweet, and thus the third one, is because I expected blowback from my matter-of-fact statement about philosophy saying that I'm attacking philosophy when, indeed, I'm not. Indeed, I expected the "scientism" brigade to come down upon it in force (at least in principle, as I think they largely ignore me now for misunderstanding me on this point). At any rate, what I mean by all of this is that I expected the first tweet about thinking philosophically versus being a philosopher to be misinterpreted as another shot fired "for science" in the ongoing turf war between those two fields, a false dichotomy if ever there was one.

Though it often gets denied, it seems rather clear to me, sitting outside of it, that there is a turf war between the sciences and philosophy. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that scientists don't see themselves as a specialized kind of philosopher (and thus brand the philosophical endeavor as a waste) and that philosophers (to the degree that they're not also scientists and thus not equipped to work that way) don't like to give up their primacy in fields that they've long been the chief guardians of that branch of human knowledge.

Sam Harris, though, is right: "the boundaries between disciplines are mere conventions and that we inhabit a single epistemic sphere in which to form true beliefs about the world." In this sense, the war seems futile, petty, and institutional to the point of being almost tribal. I do hope we can get past it.

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