Philosophers have made arguably the greatest strides in human progress. Modern science arose from the mind of Aristotle. The ideas of John Locke (and many others) form the basis of our democracies. Adam Smith ushered in capitalism and the study of economics. Voltaire and other great minds introduced the ideals that would drive the French Revolution. The list goes on and on. It has an illustrious past, but what are the prospects for the future of philosophy?
Philosophy is an ancient, well-accomplished subject. Yet today people do not take it seriously, and many consider it a joke. The worst part is the mockery is often valid, if exaggerated.
This blog post is a discussion of the future of philosophy. I will start by presenting what I view as the central problem of philosophy, and go on to propose potential solutions by characterizing the ideal role of philosophy in society.
As a relative outsider to academic philosophy I lack clear insight into what goes on in philosophy departments, but can identify the reasons for the public opinion of it, and present solutions that represent the common interest. This more than makes up for my lack of experience.
Why philosophers should care
It is easy for philosophers to adopt the attitude of: ‘Why should I care, if they [the people] want to be ignorant then let them be’. This is harmful, as philosophers pass up on the 1) the ability to improve the subject, and 2) the ability to make a real impact.
I believe that many of these concerns, while greatly inflated, do hold truth. And, even if the people have it wrong, it doesn’t really matter. Without mass support and interest philosophy is simply not going to have a mass impact. Therefore philosophers should make an attempt to address these concerns, fictitious or not.
A disconnect with the real world
There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers – Henry David Thoreau
Academics often seem intent on distancing themselves from the public. The difference is that while an obscure and uninteresting advance in biology may help cure a disease, advances in philosophy are only helpful insofar they change the thoughts of people. Philosophers must therefore seek to share and spread these ideas.
We may endeavour to explain this strange (after all who would willingly attempt to sentence themselves to isolation and irrelevance) phenomenon in multiple ways. It is possibly a byproduct of reading pompous old men for a living (but probably not). Or perhaps it is because philosophy requires only pen, paper, and a brain, and philosophers seek to distinguish it in other ways. Maybe they seek to retain the nobility of their ancient subject, and fearing contact with the public might ‘taint’ it. Possibly they fear the scrutiny public interest might bring, preferring to isolate themselves in order to maintain their comfortable cocoon.
Whatever the reason, the fact is that there is a disconnect between philosophy and the real world, as well as the people that inhabit it. They value tradition over innovation, and prefer in-house puzzles to current problems.
Twitter philosophers – a case study
To demonstrate what I mean, we will look at a very specific group of philosophers who I have developed a (perhaps unjust) dislike for. The typical ‘twitter philosopher’ has:
- A dramatic photo of a thinking statue as a profile picture
- An assortment of out of context quotes which, while packed with wisdom, are quickly forgotten with no meaningful substance attached to them
- Simple ideas conveyed in such a way that they confuse the reader into thinking that they have some greater meaning
- A description that conveys the general idea “I will lead you to mastery”
- A course or book that they attempt to sell under every single tweet
- My personal favourite, those who attempt to conduct, and I quote, “purge” of their followers, that only those deemed worthy may come into contact with them
There are also many great philosophers on Twitter, sure, but these represent the majority.
Is philosophy destined for isolation?
This isolation of philosophy is far from a recent phenomenon. Over the years great minds, from Aristotle to Averroes, have maintained that philosophy is the pursuit of the elite. They do make some points worth considering, despite bias.
Cryptic language – yay or nay?
First is that philosophers might require cryptic language to convey such complex ideas, found at the very edge of our understanding. I acquiesce, with one caveat. This is the case only in a few circumstances. Much of the complexity of these ancient texts stems from the simple fact that they are old, and that their authors were marvelously talented. In an attempt to sound authoritative, modern philosophers attempt to imitate this writing style, to little success. Rather than the layered and elegant dialogue of Shakespeare we get writing that seems loath to admit the knowledge it hides.
Plato wrote beautifully, for the simple purpose of luring the public to read his works. Good writing is writing that people can understand and connect with. Today, this means writing simply and with personality.
Money, and the real world, compromises philosophy
As soon as philosophy begins to turn itself to real world problems and draw public attention, those with money will follow. If some philosopher, respected by the public, denounces the ethics or long-term benefit of some venture, those with mutual interest might seek to ‘persuade’ him otherwise.
I sing the song of him whose bread I eat
This is already a major issue with science; interested parties fund research and, *ahem* encourage findings that lean in a certain direction. This is common in the food industry, where large corporations cherry-pick scientific evidence that portrays their product in a good light. Involving philosophy with money might certainly have a negative impact.
Is it better then to keep philosophy completely separate? My answer is still no, but that we must consider what measures can be put in place to prevent this.
Can philosophy be a tool of the people?
If philosophy is to have a major impact, then it needs to change the thought of the people, and not just academics within the discipline. This raises an important concern.
Will the average person be willing to rigorously question their own beliefs as philosophy demands? Or have we lost the ability and will to think, concentrate, and self-reflect? If the people do not actively engage with new ideas, and reconsider their own, then philosophy might become an election of ideas; choosing what is most convenient to believe.
Do note that I am very broad in my criticism, and make some unfair assumptions (due to a lack of experience). There are many philosophers doing great work to connect with the public and solve real world problems. Do not judge all philosophers with this stereotype.
At this point you might ask yourself why we should even attempt to preserve philosophy. Is it not an irrelevant subject, a lost cause?
My answer to that is a firm and resounding no. As I have discussed previously, philosophy has an important role to play both in society, and in the life of individuals. If those articles do not convince you, I hope the following section will, by showing you some of the important roles philosophy has to play.
The future of philosophy
In my mind modern philosophy should seek to connect people with the profound ideas of the past. Philosophers must not just be philosophers, but skilled educators, facilitators of thought and reflection. Instead of dissertations, they can write books for the public, success being measured by real impact.
Philosophy may also act as a bridge between science and the people. If philosophy becomes more involved and respected within the scientific community, then it may have more influence over the direction of science. If people are encouraged to connect with philosophy (by reading it, writing about it, giving feedback and thoughts) then we too might have a say in the direction of science, and what ought to be done with it.
In the long-term, the progress of science is haphazard and lacking coordination. This is because science is guided by the often short-term decisions of the government (who seek to solve only current problems) and the capitalists (who seek to benefit themselves as soon as possible), as well as the fact that there is little inter-disciplinary cooperation.
Science has become the realm of the hyper-specialized, important yet isolated facts. I believe philosophy can coordinate science in two ways:
Philosophy attempts to determine what is really good, figuring out what we ought to do. This may provide long-term direction for science, giving us a way to meaningfully prioritize which paths of inquiry to pursue (rather than deciding based on what solves current problems, or tickles the fancy of scientists). With common goals we can ensure unity of inter and intradisciplinary purpose.
An inter-disciplinary approach
To solve complex problems we require a complex set of tools. We cannot build a chair with just an axe, or only a hammer. We require multiple tools, coordinated by an external intelligence.
I believe it to be the same with great intellectual problems. Multiple tools, an inter-disciplinary approach may be required to effectively solve them.
Philosophers are not concerned with the minutiae of science, and are therefore uniquely placed to facilitate this interaction. Philosophy sees the forest from the trees, and may therefore make the leaps of imagination and reason required to find solutions to humanity’s vast problems, drawing grand theories and conclusions that science may then test.
A grand theory of the universe
An example of this would be a “grand theory of the universe”. Our current best explanation is string theory. But this ventures into the realm of pseudo-science, the untestable. This is the domain of philosophy, and string theory reeks of a metaphysical system. At the boundary of these difficult problems the borders become blurred, and one discipline fades into another. Why enforce these arbitrary distinctions, when an inter-disciplinary approach may be the most effective?
A somewhat more concrete example is that of artificial intelligence. Developing the technology itself requires software and hardware engineers as well as physicists. But that disregards all the additional problems that arise: it needs philosophers to address ethical dilemmas and policymakers and law experts to adapt constitutions and the judicial system.
To program a friendly AI, we need to capture the meaning of life. What’s “meaning”, what’s “life”, what’s the ultimate ethical imperative? In other words, how should we strive to shape the future of our Universe? If we cede control to a superintelligence before answering these questions rigorously, the answer it comes up with is unlikely to involve us. This makes it timely to rekindle the classic debates of philosophy and ethics, and adds a new urgency to the conversation!
In his book Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond attempts to answer the question of why different continents developed differently. The solution requires an impressive array of disciplines: biology, history, sociology, geography, agriculture, food science etc. To develop a well-rounded and accurate answer we must approach problems from different perspectives.
I will echo my previous sentiment. Philosophy is uniquely placed to serve as an orchestrator and a composer that may coordinate the symphony of human advancement.
A shepherdDirection is much more important than speed - Richard Feynman Click To Tweet
Knowledge is power, but power is directionless. Science may either bring us prosperity or ruin. Our wisdom determines how we wield this power, and its ultimate effect.
I believe this to be an important role of philosophy in the future, as a guide, a cautious sheperd of human knowledge. We are in desperate need of some wisdom to navigate the thorny issues of modern civilization. Philosophy should therefore more actively intervene in shaping our direction; by communicating with the public, cooperating with scientists, or even having leadership roles in government.
The philosophy of science is the “science of science” as Einstein described it. It looks at the frameworks and methods of science and attempts to refine them.
Philosophy is like a gardener, that prunes and nurtures the sciences. I believe philosophy has a pertinent role to play here, and that an effort should be made to cultivate this relationship. This starts by clearly establishing the relationship between the two, and removing misunderstanding which sparks animosity.
An innovatorEvery science begins as philosophy and ends as art; it arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement - Will Durant Click To Tweet
Philosophy, although not thought of as such, is an innovator, gallantly leading the human pursuit of truth.
Philosophy is an engine of hypothesis; it asks questions that open up new avenues of inquiry. Philosophy turns mysteries, theoretical problems with no concrete answer, into puzzles, difficult problems, but ones that a conclusive answer. It does so by developing the frameworks and tools of the problem, and when the technology catches up, a new science is formed.
A clear example is biology. Two thousand years ago, Aristotle started asking questions about life, and through reason attempted to solve them. When technology caught up, and conclusive experiments could be conducted, this questioning became more formally known as biology.
So it is with every science. Philosophy prepares the way, identifies a problem and eventually ‘spawns’ a new discipline to address it. Needed for unified theory of the universe, to coordinate isolated facts into a theory (science is attempting to conduct pseudo philosophy in this)
Philosophy is at once ancient and innovative. It is a deep and diverse field, one that has the opportunity to play an integral role in our collective future.
To do so however, philosophers (at least some of them) need to take a lesson from the father of philosophy, Socrates.
The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing – Socrates
Intellectual modesty is something that seems to be sorely missing in the academic setting, but it is also sorely needed; to reconnect with the public, engage fruitfully with science, and innovate. This is my vision for the future of philosophy.