In defence of philosophy

In my last three novels I’ve deliberately set about exposing a teenage audience to philosophical ideas. Clearly, in doing this, I’m making a couple of assumptions. First, that some teenagers will be interested in reading about things like consciousness, free will and death, and second, that exposing them to the philosophical take on these ideas is a worthwhile thing to do.

The second of these assumptions is by no means obvious. For a great many people, if various discussions I’ve had are any indicator, philosophy represents a sort of pointless indulgence. They see it as little more than a game, in the way chess is a game, where one can while away the hours constructing and defending positions while seeking out weaknesses in the opposing points of view. Ultimately though, comes the claim, nothing is established, no understanding is advanced. Common sense is more than enough to get us through when grappling with questions of ethics or reality, and in the cases where it fails us, so too does philosophy. In essence, philosophy is painted as a marginally acceptable leisure activity, perhaps a reasonable thing to fleetingly dabble in during the pretentious undergraduate years, but nothing more. Grown ups have living to do, and those who fail to move on from vats in brains, zombies and parallel universes, are to be treated with a certain suspicion.

One of the reasons I enjoy introducing philosophy into my teen novels is that I’m pretty sure the view I outlined above is bogus. While I don’t think engagement with philosophy is a necessary part of life, any more than ice skating or reading books are necessary, I think it’s wrong to dismiss the field as unhelpful or unimportant. What’s more, I think it’s tremendously easy to show where the error lies. People who make the case I’ve caricatured above are themselves indulging in a philosophical argument, and as such, they’re not really making a case against philosophy. Rather, they’re making the case that they should be allowed to continue doing their very bad philosophy, untroubled by the challenges of rigorous analysis.

Let’s see if I can justify that claim. While philosophy covers a very broad range of questions and investigations, one of its key drivers is the question of knowledge. What do we mean, when we say we know something, or believe something to be true? Which types of knowledge, if any, are valid? Which of our beliefs should be treated as speculative? How can we go about building more reliable, or perhaps reasonable, models of our world? When models or interpretations compete, is there a way of deciding which is best, or are we forever trapped in a world of accepting any view as valid, so long as it is sincerely held?

It’s through addressing these bigger questions that we come to create systems for analysing our own sets of beliefs and impulses. Try some of these questions on for size: Can conscious experience extend beyond the life of the physical brain (is life after death possible, likely?) Does science tell us about reality, or does it just give us models for dealing with our interpretation of reality? Is there a God, or perhaps many Gods, or are there none? When we say it is wrong to torture children, are we saying it’s wrong because many people find it repulsive, or would it be wrong even if people developed a taste and tolerance for it? If we find a belief useful, is that the same as it being true? What test of truth could there be, other than usefulness?… There would be little problem extending this list for pages, but these few examples should suffice.

Now, here’s the thing. Maybe, for some of the questions above, your honest answer is ‘don’t know, don’t care.’ But I’m betting that most people reading this will have beliefs/opinions on at least some of them. And, I would argue, to have an opinion on these is to hold to a particular philosophical position. What’s more, if you’re going to hold a philosophical position, as most of us do, most of the time, then why object to those who want to ground that position in the best scholarship available? Why not be open to the counter position, the nuance, the implication? Why not, in other words, aspire to a degree of smartness? I think, if you don’t, and you remain obstinately of the view that philosophy is a waste of time, then you sort of lose speaking rights in the argument. If we take some of the hot button topics here, say religion, or cultural diversity, then it seems to me the most unhelpful stance is the one that says, I’m right, they’re wrong, and no, I’m much not interested in discussing the intricacies, because that’s all just waffle.

For teenagers, to return to my target audience, a failure to engage in philosophy runs the very real risk of a generation unable to analyse the cultural assumptions they marinate in. And that becomes a problem in any society where there’s a degree of diversity, because if we can’t dig beneath the fictions we’ve been taught to see as facts, then we’re in a tremendously poor position to assess the stories that other groups bring to the table. In our ignorance, we will be drawn towards the impulse to dismiss that we don’t understand as unworthy. Philosophy isn’t particularly fashionable at the moment, it’s true, but then neither is thinking in general. I’m not sure that’s something we should be altogether proud of. So next time you hear someone, when confronted with a question like ‘do you believe God exists?’ draw a deep breath and then say ‘well, in order to answer that, we’d need to reach an agreement on what we might mean by belief, God, and indeed existence. Not easy questions, pull up chair…’ maybe you should.

2 thoughts on “In defence of philosophy

  1. Edwin says:

    So your question is, is philosophy useful? The obvious answer is no, it doesn’t help put bread on the table, so to speak. Those who enjoy it gain a sense of superiority over their lesser comrades, but in reality, what can they do that those others can’t? The answer is nothing.

    But then, why do people do it? It’s because people like to know more about the world around them, to analyse and to question, to not simply take things for granted but rather justify their beliefs. People enjoy learning new things and discovering new ideas. And as to how it’s useful, philosophy leads to an open mind, which is essential in avoiding pointless conflict and embracing new ideas. Society can’t advance without the ability to reject those ideas they have always held for no other reason than “but that’s how it is” and consider new ones.

  2. Hi Edwin

    Absolutely. To my mind the greatest virtue of philosophical thought is the way it encourages the habit of engaging with new and challenging ideas in a spirit of open generosity.


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