What good are philosophers?

Stephen Hawking made a rather contentious – some might say hyperbolic – statement in The Grand Design: he said, "philosophy is dead." Of course, this rattled the feathers of a great many philosophers, who subsequently accused Hawking of hypocrisy given that, shortly after making this statement, he adopts a curiously philosophical position of model-dependent realism.

I could be wrong about what exactly Hawking meant, but I think I get what he was saying, and I think he's right. I've never really been that impressed with philosophy in general; it seems like a hodgepodge of masturbatory tautologies masquerading as insight, generally undertaken by crotchety old men who probably need more constructive hobbies. Hell, we should have "National Give a Philosopher a Tuba Day", and I suspect the atonal racket that would follow would be more aurally pleasant than the inane babble of pseudo-intellectualism that pervades the field.

I have yet to be impressed by any philosophical argument which claims that, from argument alone, some truth can be discerned. The following travesty of reason, called the "Liebnizian Cosmological Argument" was brought to my attention by the biologist Larry Moran over at his excellent blog Sandwalk:
The basic Leibnizian argument has the following steps:
(1) Every contingent fact has an explanation.
(2) There is a contingent fact that includes all other contingent facts.
(3) Therefore, there is an explanation of this fact.
(4) This explanation must involve a necessary being.
(5) This necessary being is God.
Larry says his reaction is "Holy shit! Are there really people who believe this nonsense?", and I'm inclined to agree. These are the same kind of arguments that pseudo-intellectual philosophers from Aquinas to William Lane Craig have shuffled forth for ages. Not only are they really, really bad arguments – circular and riddled with baseless assumptions and assertions – but they are incapable of doing what they're supposed to do, which is impart to us some sort of valid knowledge about the world.

This is not to say that I think philosophy is useless, but I think that what Hawking was saying – and rightfully so – is that philosophers aren't bringing us any closer to new knowledge. Real progress is made by science, and we hold science in esteem not because it is rooted in this philosophy or that (like, say, "methodological naturalism"), but because it works. Whenever I hear some academic brain-on-a-bag object to scientific theories on the grounds of metaphysical this or ontological that, I feel a compulsive urge to go shopping for one of those tubas. If a theory can both account for observation and make accurate predictions, we can take it as a valid approximation of reality. We may never know if this or that model adequately explains all reality, because we simply don't know what, exactly, reality is. That's why Hawking's concept of model-dependent realism really does successfully discard a great deal of philosophical masturbation. It doesn't matter if the ideas sound counter-intuitive, like particles taking all possible paths from one point to another; nor does it matter if a theory is derived, like Hawking's No Boundary model, from strange-sounding mathematical devices like imaginary numbers. What matters is whether it works. Quantum mechanics is riddled with the sort of stuff that makes philosophers spin in their leather-bound chairs, but we know it is true because it makes measurable predictions with astounding accuracy.

I suppose then that it's not that I outright oppose philosophy – I'm sure Daniel Dennett could teach me a thing or two – but that I'm a pragmatist. Reason is only as valuable as our ability to apply it. And right now, there's only one method we have by which to use reason to attain reliable knowledge about the world, and that is science. All the syllogisms in the world can't match a single nugget of confirmed, observable phenomena predicted by theoretical models, and no amount of philosophical babble about "first principles," "contingency", or any of those other impressive sounding but vacuous terms can bring us closer to knowledge without independently verifiable observations. It is science that reveals the true nature of reality and inexorably drags philosophers into the future – not vice versa.

Comments

  1. Okay my friend, this entry of yours has provoked me a bit - in a good way, of course.

    I love philosophy, but I often raise the same concerns about its utility.

    I'm off to write a blog entry in response to yours. My short answer is: while philosophy is indispensible, most philosophers are useless.

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