Some call it navel-gazing and dismiss it as an impractical waste of time suited only for those not interested in making money. Others call it philosophy. But I am here to tell you that philosophy is more important than ever. Here are 10 reasons why philosophy is important.
1. Because Values Are Important
Science can tell you why tigers have stripes but it cannot tell you why it’s important to preserve the life of tigers. Science can tell you how tigers play a key role in an ecosystem, but not whether it’s our moral duty to preserve an ecosystem.
While there are nuances to this distinction, for the most part, science has the power to tell us what is the case whereas philosophy has the power to tell us what ought to be.
Science can tell us how to build nuclear bombs. Philosophy can tell us why we shouldn’t build nuclear bombs.
Science can tell about the origins of life but philosophy can tell us the value of life.
Philosophy even has the power to tell us whether and to what extent values themselves are objective or relative, or whether they exist at all.
For me, this is the fundamental job that philosophy plays in our society.
Every time you imagine a better world and take steps towards its creation, you are engaged in philosophical thinking.
But how do we know what it means for the world to be “better”? What does it mean for something to be “Good”? What is Good? What is beauty? Why are truth and friendship and courage valuable?
These are all questions of philosophy.
Suppose an evil scientist kidnapped you and forced you to make a decision: kill an old lady or save the lives of 1,000,000 people? What should you do?
Science cannot give us the answer. And maybe philosophy can’t either. But it is philosophy’s job to ask the right questions and to give us frameworks to make tough ethical decisions.
One might think such questions are irrelevant consider now that technologists are tasked with the job of building self-driving cars. What if two people jump out into the middle of the road and the only path for the car to take is onto the side, where a small child is walking. Should the car swerve to kill only one human instead of two?
These are questions only philosophy can help us answer.
2. Because Knowledge Is Important
If your investigation into values tells you that knowledge is intrinsically valuable, how would you know you have achieved it? Suppose you were Neo in the Matrix. Could you have any knowledge at all?
For that matter, how do you know you are not in the matrix? After all, many smart people think it’s at least possible and even somewhat probable. Can you rule it out? How?
Science by itself cannot help you here because the tools of measurement critical to science would be creations of the Matrix and could not be trusted to give reliable measurements, because perhaps the Programmers of the Matrix are toying with us.
Questions like this fall under the domain of epistemology, the study of knowledge.
Even if the scientific method is the best way of gaining knowledge of the measurable world, epistemology can tell us not only the limits of such endeavors but also why this method is better than other, non-scientific methods.
One might think this is a pointless exercise.
After all, scientists don’t need philosophers telling them how to do their job or why their job is critical in gaining knowledge.
However, my response to this is that all scientists, whether they admit it or not, are to some extent philosophers because in virtue of their profession they utilize, implicitly or explicitly, a philosophy of science as they practice their science.
And yes, some scientists can be better at philosophy of science than philosophers of science, but that doesn’t mean philosophy of science thereby is useless or pointless. It’s just that it’s been internalized so fundamentally in how scientists think they aren’t even aware they’re doing “natural philosophy” when they formulate hypotheses and experiments.
Furthermore, philosophy can help us formalize frameworks to better understand decision-making under uncertainty as well as how to under the logic of science. Indeed, the foundational philosophical framework for science is empiricism, which itself is a philosophical view.
3. Because Metaphysics is Important
Ahh, metaphysics. This is where a lot of philosophers catch flack for being paid a lot of money for cushy, tenured jobs to argue about things that are sometimes incredibly boring and at the worst incredibly trivial. To give you a flavor, consider this contemporary “top trending” academic philosophy paper in the metaphysics genre:
“I argue that if David Lewis’ modal realism is true, modal realists from different possible worlds can fall in love with each other. I offer a method for uniquely picking out possible people who are in love with us and not with our counterparts. Impossible lovers and trans-world love letters are considered. Anticipating objections, I argue that we can stand in the right kinds of relations to merely possible people to be in love with them and that ending a trans-world relationship to start a relationship with an actual person isn’t cruel to one’s otherworldly lover.”
But despite the bad rap of metaphysics, it plays an important role in human civilization.
Take, for example, the question of whether God exists.
You might think science can “prove” that God does not exist, or that it can “prove” that such questions are meaningless.
While God might indeed not exist or the question might indeed be meaningless, whether that is the case is a question of metaphysics.
Regardless of your stance on the issue, I think we would all agree that it is an important question because humans have believed in gods, spirits, deities, etc., for almost the entire history of our species. If they do not exist, that would indeed be a very significant thing to know about. And likewise, if such things do exist, it would likewise be very important to know about such things.
And if your epistemology tells you that such questions are meaningless, that is itself a very important thing to know, which still renders metaphysics an important field but only insofar as it’s important to know why metaphysics is meaningless. But nevertheless, these are all questions of philosophy, not science.
4. Because Logic and Critical Thinking Are Important
If you haven’t noticed, there is a glut of information, ideas, and arguments floating around the internet. Our social media feeds are veritable firehoses of information, much of which is of questionable quality and veracity.
How do we make sense of it all? How do we sort the reliable information from the less reliable information? How do we discern fact from rhetoric?
What is the difference between a sound argument and a valid argument? How do we even tell whether someone has made a good argument?
If two talking heads are debating on the news channel, how do we tell who is making better arguments?
Questions of this sort are the bread and butter of philosophy. Philosophy helps us think critically by giving us logical tools to identify when people make fallacies of argumentation.
The ability to know when someone is full of bullshit is of critical importance in our age of hyperpolarized culture and politics, how do you know when a politician or viral Facebook post is full of bullshit?
Is your favorite politician making a good argument or does it only seem like that because they are are “your side”?
Having a good toolset of critical thinking skills allows one to venture outside your social media bubbles and expose yourself to viewpoints and ideas different from your own without thereby falling prey to any potential falsehoods or bad faith arguments. And who knows, you might even change your mind about something (*gasp*).
5. Because Going Deeper Is Important
Philosophy prides itself on being “meta.”
There is philosophy of science.
There is philosophy of mind.
But did you know there is also philosophy of “X” where “X” is literally anything you can imagine? There is even philosophy of philosophy (this blog post itself as an example of such meta-philosophy, where we are philosophizing about philosophy.)
In virtue of its abstract nature, philosophy allows us to go deeper into any given subject. For example, the philosophy of mathematics asks: are numbers real independent of us or just formal symbol systems?
The “meta” qualities of philosophy are especially evident in popular culture, where many of the writers and creators use philosophical concepts to make interesting plotlines and dialogue (think Westworld, or The Matrix, both of which are heavily influenced by philosophy).
For just about any cultural domain there is philosophy written about it.
Philosophy and the Simpsons.
Philosophy and Superheroes.
Philosophy and Starwars.
Philosophy and Starstrek.
The list goes on.
Almost all of popular culture is influenced by philosophy in some way or another, or, at the very least, is subject to critical philosophical analysis.
An education in philosophy allows you to delve deeper into the world and culture around you. Study philosophy long enough, and you too can be the annoying person at the dinner table who commonly says, “Well, that’s interesting, because philosophically….”
6. Because Avoiding Scientism Is Important
Philosophy is important because a world without it is devoid of abstract thinking and a world where only science exists is a world where the ends can justify any means.
Scientism is the worship of science above and beyond the veneration science deserves. While certainly, in our culture science probably deserves more credence than it is given, especially in the US. However, if you go too far down that road of veneration, it becomes treated not just as a useful method of gaining knowledge about the world but a temple of worship, where we are told to “shut up and calculate!” instead of thinking abstractly about the meaning of things.
For example, scientific physics gives us the ability to calculate and predict with great precision using the mathematics of quantum physics. But philosophy gives us the mental frameworks to interpret and give meaning to the formulae. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to think about the difference between, for example, the Many-Worlds or the Copenhagen Interpretations of quantum mechanics, both of which, by the way, involve a healthy dose of metaphysical philosophizing.
7. Because Understanding Ourselves Is Important
Philosophy is of critical importance to understanding ourselves in at least two ways.
One, philosophizing is just something humans have been doing for a long time. It’s an important part of our history as a species. Therefore, to understand why humans engage in philosophy is to better understand humans.
Second, philosophy helps us asks questions such as:
- What is the relation between the mind and the body?
- What is consciousness? What is the mind?
- Does human consciousness survive death?
- Do we have free will? What does that entail?
These are all questions of utmost importance, regardless of whether you are a physicalist or a dualist, or something else. Humans have been fascinated by these topics for thousands of years precisely because they strip us down to our bare bones. Even if you think consciousness is a bunch of baloney, that in itself is an idea of profound importance and could not be arrived at through any of means except by way of philosophy!
8. Because Understanding Our Limits Is Important
Philosophy helps us understand the limits of human knowledge. Are there some things that we will never know? Will we always continue debating free will and consciousness until the end of time?
Perhaps somethings will never be known with the clarity of scientific precision.
But that doesn’t mean the processing trying to answer the questions isn’t itself an enlightening dialectic. Perhaps we will learn something new about ourselves in so doing.
Regardless, philosophy helps us understand the limits of our language and knowledge while also giving us the humility to know when we do not know.
After all, Socrates, the most famous philosopher of all time, was deemed by the Oracle of Delphi to be the wisest man around not because of his knowledge, but rather, because he knew that he knew nothing. Such humility is sorely needed in modern times as well.
9. Because Clarity Is Important
Philosophy is important because it can be a powerful tool for getting clear on just what the hell we are talking about. If philosophy has any go-to tools in its tool belt, it is the power of the distinction and the new concept.
While it is true, philosophers are not famous for being clear writers, they are in fact famous for coming up with new concepts, distinctions, and definitions to help us be more precise with our words. And when we are more precise in our words, we are more precise in our thoughts, and that is a mighty fine power indeed!
10. Because Finding Meaning Is Important
Last but not least, philosophy is important because it gives us the tools to either find life absurd or find life brimming with meaning.
In today’s modern world, such activities of thought and interpretation are of critical importance. When we are alienated and bored with modern existence, how do we find meaning? Existentialism can help.
When tragedy befalls us, how do we stay emotionally resilient? Stoicism can help.
When nihilism threatens to demystify our world, philosophy can come to the rescue and help you realize that nihilism either isn’t so bad after all or that it’s false altogether.
While it’s true, philosophers can often be a miserable lot of contrarians and pessimists, I have found that wise philosophers know how to laugh, both at themselves and the world.
And since philosophy is after all the love of wisdom, philosophy is important because in an Age of Information Overload, wisdom is more needed than ever.
We need the wisdom to slow down, be thoughtful, and contemplate. Action is good too. But action without thought poses many risks, both to ourselves and the world. Moderation is key. If you are overly contemplative you might find yourself lost in the clouds and not the present moment before you. But if you are all action you are like a raging bull, moving fast and breaking things without consideration of whether you ought to have done that.
The Importance of Philosophy
So despite what you might have heard from certain overzealous scientists, philosophy is more relevant than it has ever been. Do you need to go get an expensive degree to study philosophy? All you need is a library card or internet connection. You could also just take a walk or shower and philosophize all on your own.
That’s the beauty of philosophy. Don’t let any elitist tell you that “real” philosophers are paid to do it in fancy universities. As an ex-academic philosopher, I can assure you that such falsehoods are born more out of insecurity than any good-faith definition of philosophy.