Why Philosophy Doesn’t Fully Suck

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There’s a general suspicion towards philosophy that pervades the present moment. A sense that there’s really nothing there, that the whole philosophical enterprise is but a raft of smoke and mirrors. A rort. As someone who, on certain occasions, identifies as a philosopher — indeed as someone who views philosophy as utterly central to the entire human project — I find this suspicion, naturally, rather curious. Disconcerting, even. From whence, I wonder, did it came? And how is it possible, I ask, that there could be such a divergence between my own sense of philosophy’s utter essentialness, its individual and civilisational primacy, and the apparent disdain with which so many seem to regard it? Is there not a way to reconcile these two views? Or is there a fundamental disagreement in earnest?

Already — it’s worth pointing out — we’re doing philosophy. If there’s a legitimate basis for the suspicion in question, it will be a philosophical one. If there isn’t and there is in fact a way to reconcile the two views, it will also be a philosophical perspective, ultimately, that gets us there, that bridges the gap. Any which way it goes, it’s philosophy. For it’s philosophy all the way down.

This, you might think, is the end of the story. But it’s not. See, where I view this — that is, philosophy’s inescapability — as a slam dunk for philosophy, others use the same insight to argue against it.

“See, philosophy is everywhere!” I say. “You can’t argue against philosophy without using philosophy as your sole weapon”. Anti-philosophical sentiment is thus, on this view, self-defeating. The rebuttal, however, is something to this effect: “But see that’s precisely what makes it meaningless — its ubiquity.” “Everything and nothing is philosophy, then.” “For if everything is equal in its status as a philosophical object, then it’s all the same.” It’s a kind of free-market, economic logic: {If} infinite supply, {then} infinitesimal value. But I’m not so sure that works. In fact, ironically, I think it works better the other way. Let me show you how.

Everything is philosophy but that doesn’t mean all philosophy is equally valuable, in just the same way as everything is made of matter and yet not all matter is equally valuable. Indeed, as you’ve surely noticed, some bits (configurations) of matter are more valuable than others. And the same goes for philosophy. All is one, though not all is equal.

wut makes a thing valuable?

At this point, things are getting juicy. “OK, so philosophy isn’t equally valuable you say, but isn’t value subjective?” “Isn’t it just a he says she says kinda thing?” “How are we, then, to know which philosophy is in fact better, if there is in fact no fact of the matter?”

Wrong! Just kidding. But seriously. Value, in the normative sense, isn’t subjective. Neither is Knowledge. In both cases, they’re grounded in facts about the universe and the way it’s configured. Values, in the human case, are grounded in facts about the physiology of conscious creatures, whereas Knowledge, in the universal sense, is grounded in facts about physical systems more generally. While there are minds (subjects) involved in the conscious perception and manipulation of these concepts, that does not make them inherently subjective. A subject does not, by its very involvement, make a thing subjective.

To be sure, this is a highly unfashionable line of thought. It’s very modern, as in pre-postmodern. For according to postmodernist wisdom, everything is subjective, relative, constructed. Nowhere in nature is there such things as values, they’ll assert. Thus we don’t discover values, we merely make them. There is no right and wrong, good or evil — only perspective, man. Here people cite such figures as Nietzsche (who, for all his literary prowess, was a bona fide lunatic, let’s be clear) as an appeal to authority. But again, this line of argument is self-defeating. For one can’t claim that values are merely subjective, cultural constructs, without rendering the particular value/s on which their claim is predicated utterly subjective — that is, meaningless — also. So either relativism is also relative, in which case it’s not much of a position at all, or there really is an element of objectivity underpinning the things we care about. Clearly, I prefer the latter view.

Cultural relativism is easily understandable in the historical context. It’s an attempt to temper claims as to Absolute Knowledge. But moral realism/epistemic objectivism doesn’t imply Absolute Knowledge. It simply implies that there are objective truths — somewhere out there — and that these truths are discoverable, indeed by us. We have no way of knowing, however, when we are in possession of such Truth. Knowledge is real, on the realist view, but it needn’t be Justifiable, so to speak. Thus claims to Absolute Knowledge are always fraudulent. For we are always fallible — for we are always human.

Cultural relativism was a response to a series of historical developments, a series of abuses of power predicated on the notion of Absolute or Divine Truth, claims to objective superiority. Noble as the intention was, however, it went too far, throwing the baby (objective Truth) out with the bathwater (dogmatism). The message should be there is no such thing as Absolute or Divine truth — or if there is that we have no way of demonstrating when we’ve got our hands on such. We are always liable to error and bias — our humanness — and we should always be weary of Knowledge claims, especially when they involve a capital-K.

This has been somewhat of a tangent, a digression, yet it’s impossible to wrap one’s head around the current distaste for philosophy without fully appreciating this particular cultural development — ironically, this particular philosophy. At least partially, philosophy is currently held in contempt because it’s viewed, on some level, as a violation of the civilisational sanctity of subjectivity — it’s viewed as an enterprise predicated on the notion of objective, Absolute Truth. For why write a book arguing for a set of ideas unless you really believe them to be True? If it’s all relative, man, why bother? All ideas, in the end, are equally valid — equally true — on the postmodernist construal. Everything is equally valuable — and valueless.

This to just to say that, if you really buy the postmodernist program, if you’re ‘all about it’ — as the kids say — then a disregard for philosophy is a perfectly logical — indeed inevitable — implication to draw. If everything’s equally profound and stupid, what’s the point? It’s all a trip, in that case.

Postmodernism — i.e. bad philosophy — isn’t the only cause of the world’s current mistrust of philosophy. It’s not as sophisticated as all that. No doubt, a big part of philosophy’s present less-than-flattering perception has to do with the success of science. Where science has been impressively and irrefutably successful, as an epistemic enterprise, philosophy has been, well, less obviously so. Indeed, where science has such things as particle accelerators and iPhones to point a finger at and assert its worth, philosophy has books that are, for the most part, largely unreadable. On its face, there’s not much competition.

Given the obvious accomplishments of science, and the less-than-obvious accomplishments of philosophy, there is a growing sense that science is the only real epistemic game in town. Science is empirical, accountable, quantifiable. Philosophy, on the other hand, appears entirely unconstrained — too afflicted by pathology. Science works, in short. Philosophy it’s not so clear. Thus philosophy is dead, all hail science!

But again, this is simply bad philosophy, much of it tied to an erroneous distinction between the two programs. See, both science and philosophy are ultimately manifestations of human reason. And before science is “science”, it is philosophy — it is reasoned conjecture. Hypothesis. Indeed the development of science, as an enterprise, is a fundamentally philosophical one. Science, in the end, is simply the institutional embodiment of a set of philosophical ideas — i.e. the value of evidence, logic, empirical observation, mathematics etc. These aren’t scientific ideas, to be clear. They’re just ideas. And all ideas are equivalent in their status as philosophical objects. Thus contrary to this notion of a clean and inviolable demarcation between the two disciplines, science emerged from philosophy. Indeed science remains philosophy. For again, it’s philosophy all the way down.

Lol

Philosophy is also met with a suspicion that science isn’t, it seems, because the latter is viewed as dealing simply with what Is, whereas the former is explicitly interested in what Ought to be. People don’t mind being told what’s what, but they do have a problem, apparently, with being told what should be what. In an age of growing anti-establishment sentiment, people aren’t sympathetic to hearing, from anything that smells like authority, how things ought to be — least of all how one ought to live. Science is thus able to thread the PR needle here in a way that philosophy simply can’t. Science can at least pretend that it has no bearing on what ought to be. Philosophy has no chance of that, however, for ought’s are of course the bread and butter of philosophy — it’s not the whole program, to be sure, but it’s a big piece of it.

Ultimately, philosophy is met with greater suspicion than science because philosophy encroaches on the personal — that is, the sacred space of our lived experience — in a way that science at least doesn’t seem to. Science, people tend to think, deals in the impersonal, the mechanical, the how and what of things. But it’s ultimately silent on the subjects that concern us most. Thus it’s no threat, it poses no danger to our norms and customs, our way of Being — the stuff we cherish most. Or so it goes.

However, this is to misunderstand science and the relationship between facts and values. What Is and what Ought isn’t, as is generally thought, separated by some irreconcilable epistemic chasm. They’re inexorable strands of the same fabric of Reality. Values are grounded in facts about the world, whatever they happen to be. There is no distance between the impersonal and the personal — between science and philosophy — as a matter of ontology, or anything else, for that matter. It’s all one thing where studying here, and each has bearing on the other. It’s all, as it were, connected, man.

Science, though it tends to shy away from explicit ‘oughts’, can’t help but deal in them. The primary difference here, then, between philosophy and science, is that philosophy isn’t afraid to neck up to the fact — to own that it actually has an opinion as to how things should ideally be. Science is much snakier. It’s slimy, pretending it’s impartial while endorsing a set of values all the while.

Many of the most ardent critics of philosophy are, interestingly, scientists. Indeed some of the most famous scientists in the popular culture — Dawkins, Hawking, Krauss etc. — are on record expressing their contempt for philosophy. Philosophy is dead, they insist. Enough voodoo metaphysics, the world is physical, spacetime is a thing, black holes eat the world, now let’s get on with business. All hail science!

The thing about scientists who disregard philosophy in favour of science is that they still end up doing philosophy, just without knowing they are. Naturally, what results is rather poor philosophy. For instance, the vast majority of scientists would identify as materialists — proponents of the view that the universe is fundamentally a physical thing (i.e. everything is made of physical matter). Very few scientists, however, appreciate just how radical a proposition this is — nor, for that matter, how utterly unscientific it is. Indeed, how utterly philosophical it is.

The notion that the world is purely physical — that there is no other things, as it were — is an entirely metaphysical claim. In arguing for physicalism, allusions can be made to science, sure, but physicalism itself is not at all a scientific fact. It doesn’t logically follow from the observation of atoms, say. Indeed it doesn’t logically follow from any scientific observation. Whether it ultimately holds or not, it is, at present, nothing but a wildly speculative, metaphysical proposition.

This is a profound phenomenon, really. Our prevailing worldview — our current sense of ‘what this all is’— while connected to science and the scientific enterprise, isn’t itself at all scientific. However you slice it, materialism is a philosophical theory through and through (and a far from intuitive one at that). And yet those vociferous scientists don’t quite seem to know the difference. Thus contrary to their intention, and most ironically, they haven’t at all demonstrated the obsolescence of ontology and metaphysics, they’ve merely invented their own — thus making the point for philosophy. It’s a rabbit out of the hat kinda trick. A sleight of hand. And though it fools many, the illusion is clear in the end. Such scientists are merely philosophers who don’t even know it. That’s why, as a rule, they’re not very good. Just imagine, for instance, the quality of your performance were you unknowingly having sex. Presumably, it’d be rather sloppy — you don’t know what’s going on, after all. And so it appears to be the case with philosophy. It’s one of those things better done with your eyes open.

Philosophy also seems to get a bad wrap because it’s seen as an inherently pretentious/pompous program. And you know what, I feel that. If one — with a (post)modern sensibility — were to survey the aesthetic of history’s most revered philosophical texts, one would indeed likely draw this conclusion. Words like hitherto and thusly are everywhere. And then there’s the jargon. All the ‘isms and ‘ologies. Whatever insight is contained in such texts aside — and that’s a worthy debate — they’re not, as a rule, a whole lot of fun. In fact, it’s a lot like having one’s teeth pulled (without anaesthetic). However, there is nothing inherent to philosophy that implies that it must adhere to a certain aesthetic convention — that it must be pompous or obtuse or just plain ugly. Ideas of course can be expressed in myriad form. It’s only an accident of history that philosophical ideas have *HiThErTo!* been presented as poorly — as devoid of the full range of artistic expression — as they have.

Moreover, not everyone is going to vibe the whole “Hey, let’s sit down with a pad and pen and try and figure out the world together” type of attitude. And that’s OK. That might not be your style. But one must appreciate that words are, as a matter of fact, our preeminent technology for developing and communicating ideas. Some amount of words are always going to be a necessary component of how we do this philosophical thing — how we make sense of the world. And if you’re not into words, that’s cool. But in the absence of anything better, they’re here to stay.

There also appears to be a sense that the very notion of attempting to understand the world, analytically, is something of an aberration. And a uniquely modern, Western one at that. As if our attempting to apply reason and logic — and indeed language — to the world is to somehow divorce ourselves from it. Like studying the world through a lens that, by its very nature, distorts its true Reality. Personally, I find it rather hard to find sympathy for this kinda view. I think, on some level, it’s tied up with a certain anti-colonial sentiment — or a sense that the analytical perspective is a perversion of the white gaze etc. (lines of thought I do have sympathy for, to be sure). But as with post-modernism as a philosophy, we can’t assess the merits of a particular set of ideas purely by way of appealing to how they’ve emerged historically, or how they may have been misused. Instead we must assess them on their merits. And of course — in the same fashion that all arguments against philosophy ultimately defeat themselves — the analytical perspective can only be argued against by appealing to some other set of analytical considerations — by appealing to the very same tools in question: logic, reason, evidence, and language. Fire can only be fought with fire here — and that doesn’t tend to work.

What the argument against the analytical perspective has to offer, in earnest, is the view that the analytical perspective is not the only perspective there is. That there are other games in town. Of course, again, this is somewhat of a paradox — for this, too, is an analytical perspective. But that aside, it does capture something. The world is indeed more than Reason. It’s not a purely mathematical or linguistic object. And thus symbols on a page, however well put together, will always fail to fully convey the world. However, that shouldn’t be regarded as a strike against the philosophical/analytical program — for “fully conveying the world” is a bloody high standard, a standard we hold no other intellectual program to. Ultimately, the modern philosophical method, the analytical gaze, provides a window onto Reality — not the window onto Reality. And that’s perfectly fine. Because for everything else, there’s psychedelics ;).

On my view, philosophy is what amounts to the Knowledge Project — the project of discovering and instantiating Knowledge in the fabric of our lives. It is, make no mistake, the essential activity we’re all engaged in here. Though we scarcely appreciate it, we’re all philosophers and we’re all philosophising all the time — and we can’t help it. It’s simply who and what we are. But there is also another — perhaps more conventional — way to understand philosophy that is equally important to appreciate here, one that goes back to our distinction between science and philosophy.

What science is tasked with studying, ultimately, is the “external world” i.e. consensus Reality — the Reality “out there” we all supposedly share. The nuts and bolts of it. What philosophy is tasked with, in contrast, is the interpretation of this Reality — i.e. decoding the relationship between our inner Reality — the realities of subjective experience — and the consensus Reality of science. The defining difference, on this take, is that science is concerned solely with the basic mechanics of the mundane — the world of form, devoid of meaning — whereas philosophy is concerned, additionally, with the transcendent plane of Reality; that is, the plane of meaning and mystery — that plane which refuses to submit to the tools and techniques of science.

There will be, I imagine, a clean split amongst readers at this point. Some amount of you will view this as heretical — positing the existence of such an utterly kooky thing as a “transcendent plane of Reality”; and worse still, perhaps, implying that science has nothing to say about it. Others, however, will be singing hallelujah (and maybe even my praises, feel free to do so btw). If you’re in the former camp — foaming at the mouth at the mere suggestion of a world beyond science — let me show you why you should be singing hallelujah (and my praises) instead.

See, science paints a picture of the world wherein there are things and processes that interact and unfold according to a set of lifeless, mechanical laws. That’s the world according to physics. Everything, on this view, is some — rather curious— combination of dumb luck and mathematical precision. Everything is an accident; nothing is “meant to be”, nothing is ultimately mysterious, nothing is “transcendent”. There was a Big Bang and that’s it. Now here we are.

If you look closely, however, you’ll see that this view is nowhere implicit in the facts. Nowhere in the laws of physics, for instance, is there anything that tells us that the world of astonishing complexity we see is purely accidental, the sole product of blind evolutionary chance. Instead, that’s a story we attribute to the facts, after the facts. The same goes for the scientific conception of death — i.e. the notion of complete oblivion. Again, nowhere is this contained in physical law. Instead we project what is known — that is, the various facts of physics, chemistry and biology — onto the unknown — that is, the ultimate nature of Reality (what, in this case, happens after death) — and then we simply throw our hands up in the air and pretend “Well, sorry, that’s just what the Book of Nature says”. But this is ultimately fallacious. And it would be dishonest, were it not for the the fact that those guilty of it haven’t the slightest clue what they’re actually up to. Thus it’s not dishonesty that’s the issue here, but rather ignorance. For what we think we’re doing, when we’re painting the world with science, is replacing myth and superstition with cold, hard facts. What we’re actually doing, however, is substituting one set of myths and superstitions for another. And often to detrimental effect.

What poets and artists and philosophers and theologians alike have been trying to do for millennia is capture, before science was capturing anything, that which science fails to — indeed that which science can’t help but fail to. See, there is a whole realm of human experience — the transcendent realm, we can think of it as — that suggests basic existential truths, and they’re suggested (really more shoved down one’s throat) with such a force they’re rendered unignorable, if not undeniable. And yet they most conspicuously fail to conform to the scientific regime. Thus science ignores them or dismisses them as mere quirks of our evolved biology.

For anyone on the receiving end of one of these experiences, however, this is hardly an option. One simply cannot, in good conscience, pretend that they’ve not just garnered something akin to fundamental insight into the structure of things. After one has swallowed the apparent red pill, there’s just no going back, it seems. The Matrix has at last been revealed, the metaphysical curtain pulled.

The thing about these experiences, these apparent insights —their defining characteristic — is that words fail, tragically, to elucidate them. And for sure mathematics isn’t much help, either. Indeed these experiences seem to communicate in another language entirely — the language of felt-experience and symbolic imagery. It’s, like, an intuitive thing; you have to see it, feel it, Be it. Then you can believe it.

These experiences, I suggest, contain bona fide Truth — as in genuine insight into the Nature of things. And yet they cannot be expressed literally, analytically. They can only, as Kastrup has suggested, be expressed symbolically — i.e. in the form of narrative, myth. The structure of religious/spiritual myth — and yes, Lord of the Rings — is thus, on this view, an expression of these insights, a symbolic representation of these transcendent Truths that cannot be captured via any other means. They are not literal truths per se, but nor are they merely allegorical. They’re somewhere in-between. Things that can be known only by the heart.

“Everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of 500 years ago is that they lived in an ‘enchanted’ world and we do not.”

Charles Taylor

This quote here captures what we generally take to be among the greatest of human intellectual accomplishment. That is, the doing away with the mystical and the mythical — in cutting the world down to size, stripping it of its poetic and metaphysical baggage. Making it less spooky, in other words, getting rid of the angels and demons. Indeed, we have a sense — ultimately deluded, of course — that our great achievement has been eliminating myth from society, ridding all prefixes from the natural. No more ‘preter’ and ‘super’. Just plain au naturel. Physics and facts.

It’s as if for the entirety of human history we were drunk on the world and then one day decided to sober up (or simply ran out of our supply). And we’re proud of that, being the good Protestants we are. However, for all our self-congratulation, our sobering up hasn’t cleared our ultimate vision of things at all — it’s merely reduced it, focused it on a particular wavelength (a wavelength that gives us physics and iPhones, and that’s cool, but that nevertheless excludes much of the broader spectrum). We have rid the world of explicit myth and superstition — inspired Truths from the heart — and replaced them instead with the stilted stories of the intellect. We’re taking things too literal, man. Not everything succumbs to the logic of logic.

Thus if there was one central flaw in the modern philosophical program, it would indeed be it’s lack of appreciation for the limitations of its method — the extent to which stringing together pieces of linguistic analysis can reveal the world. In life as in philosophy, it pays to know thyself — and thylimitations. Again, the intellect provides a perspective, not the perspective. There are many windows onto the nature of Reality. Many that escape the intellects grasp.

Critically, however, it’s not enough to merely assert that there is a transcendent, metaphysical Truth revealed by mythology — and to suggest we simply ought to re-embrace religion. There is a delicate threading of the needle that needs to take place here in order to ‘resacralise’ the world, to initiate a reintegration of the head and the heart, the profane and the sacred. Myths are the things we live by, always, but they also must be relevant to the particular conditions of our time in order to resonate — in order to bring us into contact with Truths they reveal. That is to say, that where the basic structure of divine myth may be eternal and unchanging, the particularities — the who, what, when, where and why— of the myth must be well-fitted to the particularities of our cultural context. For we must actually believe them, viscerally, in order for them to exert their existential effect. It’s not enough to pretend.

Taking mythology seriously is, for the modern philosopher, a real pain in the ass. For it opens up a can of worms — not to mention criticism. It’s much easier, in every respect, to dismiss the religious/spiritual impulse and its resultant mythology as an idiosyncracy of human biology, some desperate, evolved mechanism man employs to manufacture meaning — and to thus espouse science and literal Truth instead. But to do so is, I believe, to commit a grave intellectual — as well as existential — error. As inconvenient as it is, we must figure out, as a culture, how to reconcile these two dimensions of experience — the mundane and the transcendent, the analytical and the intuitive. How exactly we might thread the needle here, I can’t quite say, but it is, without question, one of the great intellectual projects of the next few centuries. That is, how to reenchant the world — without violating our commitment to basic epistemic standards. Without sullying the very notion of Truth.

A lazy conclusion

I’m about done with all this, so I’ma wrap it up. Philosophy doesn’t fully suck, in the end. It’s actually super important — like, civilisationally speaking — and above science in the epistemic heirarchy. But it does suck a little bit, at times. And it would suck less, I reckon, if it were a little more interesting, a little more fun, a little less serious, a little more colourful, a little more aware. A little less “philosophy”.

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