Monthly Archives: August 2008

Storytime

Call me old-fashioned, but here’s how I think about my choice for president: I ask myself who’s going to fix the serious problems confronting us here in the US and in the world. Problems like—the 25% of people in my home state of Texas who have no health insurance. The mess in Iraq, the looming threat of Iran, the intractable conflict in the middle east. Climate change, down the road. You know, important stuff.

It causes me great despair, to say the very least, that elections no longer turn on preferences about stuff like this. You could see it plainly in 2004. Here was a guy up for reelection who had demonstrated staggering incompetence in Iraq and at home, and “swing voters” chose him anyway. The best explanation anybody could come up with was that Bush, not Kerry, seemed like “a regular guy, a guy like me.” When it comes down to it, elections in the US are now settled by people who have no stable views on issues, but vote on intangible like “shares my values,” “has a good story,” “can relate to me.”

And now, here we go again. John McCain has added the governor of Alaska to the Republican ticket. You’d think Sarah Palin would add nothing, what with a political career that has been focused on local issues, and a very short career at that—a year and half as governor, after being mayor of a small Alaskan town. She’s fought corruption in her very corrupt state—who could object?–but she has no background, positions, or experience relating to national and foreign policy issues like health care or Iraq. What we do know about her is that she’s ardently pro-life, even in cases of rape and incest; she’d like to see creationism taught alongside evolution in public schools; she doesn’t believe in human-caused climate change; she’s pro-gun and anti-gay. On the whole, she’s well to the right of the average American.

But she’s a gutsy gal with a lot of personal appeal. She’s a former Miss Alaska runner up, a big-game hunter and an NRA member, a basketball player and a sports fan. She’s tough in the motherhood arena, choosing to have kid #5 even knowing he would have down syndrome; she gave birth and was back to work in three days and still makes time to use a breast pump at night. It’s the intangibles that could make her a big help to McCain—the nebulous sense of “like me” and “good story” that comes from her humble origins, can-do, unpretentious demeanor, and her penchant for all-American stuff like hunting and sports.

I sure do wish the Democrats were in a position to make the obvious argument: this woman is unqualified. I think Barack Obama is much smarter, better prepared, and more capable, but that’s a matter of perceptions. In plain, bankable terms, Obama is a neophyte too. What’s got to be the focus is where the candidates want to take us—toward endless engagement in Iraq or withdrawal? Toward a future with or without universal health care? Toward tackling global warming or ignoring it? Toward girls and women making their own reproductive choices or being required to continue unwanted pregnancies?

And yet, and yet…does that stuff matter anymore? The Democrats are as guilty as the Republicans. We heard “their stories” last week—Michelle Obama on her childhood, Joe Biden on the tragedies in his life, Barack Obama on growing up with his grandparents in Hawaii. Now we’re in for a week of Republican stories, and Sarah Palin sure will add color to the story-fest. Can you blame the candidates? They’ve figured out what moves voters, and sadly enough, all too often it’s “the story.”

Drowning Puppies

What with fall semester beginning, it’s time to get serious. So, to turn to a serious subject, let’s talk about…drowning puppies. I got this example from Mark Vernon, who knows someone in rural France who actually does the deed. (Incroyable!)

Standard procedure for responsible folk is to spay and neuter dogs, thereby denying them, for life, all the pleasures of sex and reproduction, but probably even more. Without their testicles, boy dogs lose out on all the fun of testosterone, which is probably quite a bit of fun. Why not let animals enjoy their full capacities, and take a more direct approach to population control? In short, kill excess puppies, instead of sterilizing parents?

I find this dilemma an excellent Rorschach test of basic moral attitudes. If you think about the two alternatives, killing vs. sterilizing, and the greater good pulls you in the direction of killing, you’re a consequentialist by temperament. If you think killing is inherently wrong, regardless of good consequences, then you’re a non-consequentialist by temperament. If, like me, you change your mind about the case every hour on the hour, then either you’re hopelessly confused or (best case scenario), you have super-subtle, pluralistic intuitions that make you especially sensitive and deep. Naturally I’m rooting for “sensitive and deep.”

It can’t be that consequences have no relevance to morality. Of course you should drown puppies if doing so will save the whole population of Paris. But should you drown puppies in order to preserve the natural enjoyments of adult dogs? One thing’s for sure, I’m not volunteering for the job. As a kid, I got to be midwife to two litters of puppies. Drown ‘em? Not gonna happen, as my kids like to say.

But maybe this is squeamish, and letting a vet spay or neuter just distances us from what is really the greater wrong. Maybe I should admire Mark’s friend, the frank farmer (so to speak). As you can probably tell, my opinion on the matter is changing by the minute, not even by the hour.

Please, don’t say—“doggy contraceptives.” No such thing, as far as I know, and though they would preserve much that’s important to a dog (I assume), female dogs would be denied some of the pleasures of life (having puppies). Anyhow, we have a much more interesting moral quandary here if we restrict ourselves to just two options—sterilize adults or drown puppies? Which should it be?

Carbon Sequestration

In an interesting coincidence, I happened to be reading an article on carbon sequestration at the same time the History Channel was showing a series of programs on disasters. Naturally enough, this got me thinking about potential disasters relating to carbon sequestration.

In very general terms, carbon sequestration is part of a process intended to keep atmospheric carbon levels from increasing by capturing and storing carbon dioxide emissions. The process is mainly intended for use with large scale emission producers, such as power plants.

From a moral standpoint, one stock way to justify the use of carbon sequestration is by using the standard utilitarian argument. If the utility created by carbon sequestration outweighs the disutility, then the method is morally acceptable. If not, then the method is unacceptable.

Given three important assumptions, this method seems to be morally laudable (or at least acceptable). The first is that the method will significantly reduce emissions. Second, the effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide are negative. Third, the method does present significant harms of its own.  For the sake of the argument (and brevity), the first two points will be conceded.

In regards to the third factor, there are five matters I will consider.

First, there is the environmental impact of the method to consider. Once the carbon dioxide is captured, it must be transported to a storage area. While there are alternatives, this will probably be done via pipelines. Naturally enough, such pipelines will have an environmental impact which must be taken into account when assessing this method. After the carbon dioxide is transported, it must be sequestered. Currently, the most popular proposal is geological storage. However, there are proposals to use the oceans for storage as well as mineral storage (essentially converting the carbon dioxide into rock). Obviously, the environmental impact of storing carbon dioxide in the ground or ocean could be considerable and also must be taken into account. It would be somewhat ironic if the method did more environmental damage than it prevented.

Second, there is the possibility of disaster. While carbon dioxide is much less noxious than other industrial by-products (it does not explode or burn), it still poses a significant threat. Obviously, humans and other animals can tolerate certain levels of carbon dioxide. However, high enough levels can lead to harmful effects and even death. Should a pipeline or containment location suffer a disaster, this could result in significant harm to humans and animals in the area. While I am not an engineer, the history of disasters seems to indicate that a major disaster is all but inevitable. As such, the disaster factor is something that needs to be taken into account.

Third, there is the concern that the cost of the method will take resources away from alternatives that would be safer and perhaps more effective.The earth already has highly effective means of dealing with carbon, namely plants and its own natural storage methods. It might well be a better use of our resources to protect and enhance these natural methods rather than adding an artificial method that might have serious negative consequences. Of course, there might not be as much profit in these alternative approaches as in carbon sequestration. After all, companies will need to build and maintain the systems and none of this will be free. This is not to suggest that people would use the cover of environmental concern in order to make money. It is truly hard to imagine that anyone would try to make money that way.

Fourth, there is the concern that as innovative as carbon sequestration might appear, it is really just a variation on the old models of dealing with pollution. Two of these models of dealing with waste are “sticking it in a hole in the ground” and “dumping it in the ocean.” History has shown how well those approaches have worked. Of course, it might be countered that these methods are well understood and hence involve less risk than new alternatives. However, there is much to be said for moving away from the old approaches  and finding something that will work better.

Fifth, there is the concern that this method merely masks the symptoms without addressing the underlying disease. While sequestering carbon dioxide might be better than dumping it directly into the atmosphere, it might not be better (environmentally) than switching from carbon producing processes to alternatives. While carbon sequestration allows existing power plants to operate with some modifications, the fundamental problem remains. This problem is, of course, our reliance on fossil fuels. Carbon sequestration would, if it worked, make it easier to keep using fossil fuels and hence would likely have the effect of retarding the development of alternatives.

Given these factors, carbon sequestration should be carefully considered before it is taken to be the right approach.

Green thoughts in the US

There’s some good news from America concerning action on climate change.  It turns out that two-thirds of adults in the USA think that their country should do something serious about climate change, regardless of what other countries do, according to a poll by TNS, ABC News, Standford University and Planet Green.  It’s good news, because the thought that America should refuse to act until developing countries like China and India take action has been at the centre of US policy for some time.  The Bush administration’s spoken reason for refusing to sign up to Kyoto is that the treaty fails to make demands on the developing world.  Thrasymachus could not have put it better. 

It’s been said before, probably by your mother, that if you have a moral obligation to do something, you don’t get to ignore that obligation just because others ignore it.  Lying does not become morally acceptable just because someone else does it.  The US has an obligation to take action on climate change, no matter what China and India do.  It’s a point your mother and two-thirds of Americans see clearly, even if Bush fails to grasp it.  

Is it too much to wonder if two-thirds of the voters in the US will consider voting for someone who shares their good thoughts about action on climate change?

Bibliotherapy

Just back from the UK, I’m rueful about just one thing–I didn’t have time to stop in at The School of Life, while in London. The name of the place makes me want to buy a boat and call it “The Ship of State,” or invent a perfume and call it “Joie de Vivre” (I bet somebody’s beat me to it). I do love the idea of a brick and mortar “school of life.”

There all sorts of goodies at the website, but my favorite is the offer of “bibliotherapy.” For a small fee (or large, I’m not sure), you can get just the right book prescription. Let’s say you’ve just been in the hospital and want something to read during your convalescence. What should it be? I’m not a professional bibliotherapist, but I’d say not a book about child soldiers in Africa, but maybe some Jane Austen?

Here’s the hitch. I’ve been reading lately about how people have stopped reading books. So says the cover story in a recent issue of Atlantic, and a huge article in the New York Times. So just possibly the good people at the School of Life ought to offer meta-biblotherapy, or advanced bibliotherapy. This would mean some treatment plan to get us away our computers, and back to books.

What would that be? And is it really better for you to read books than cruise the internet or chat at blogs? And are people really reading books less to begin with? So many questions…I’ll leave it there.

FGM, Purity and Skin Colour

About 18 months ago, I posted about a YouTube version of the famous doll experiment by Kenneth and Mamie Clark.

This showed that if children are presented with a choice between playing with a white doll or a black doll, then, even if they are a black child, more often than not they will choose to play with the white doll. The standard explanation for this is that very early in their lives children begin to reflect – and perhaps internalise – the racial stereotypes that are prevalent in society.

I then flagged up the possibility that perhaps racial stereotypes are not the only thing going on here. Maybe there are other reasons (for example, genetic) – deeply regrettable in their consequences – for this phenomenon.

Recently, I’ve been trawling through journal articles about the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), or Female Genital Surgery, if you prefer, and I came across an interesting piece by Janice Boddy called “Womb as Oasis: The Symbolic Context of Pharaonic Circumcision in Rural Northern Sudan” (American Ethnologist, Vol. 9, No. 4, (Nov., 1982), pp. 682-698). Her argument is basically that infibulation (which is a particularly barbaric form of FGM), as practised by the people of Hofriyat, Sudan, is tied in with a whole symbolism of purity.

…infibulation purifies, smooths, and makes clean the outer surface of the womb, the enclosure or hosh of the house of childbirth, it socializes or, if the phrase be permitted, culturalizes a woman’s fertility. Through occlusion of the vaginal orifice, her womb, both literally and figuratively, becomes a social space: enclosed, impervious, virtually impenetrable. Her social virginity, defined by qualities of enclosedness, purity, and all the rest, must periodically be reestablished at those points in her life (after childbirth and before remarriage) when her fertility once again is rendered potent. (pp. 695-696)

This is interesting stuff, obviously, but what caught my eye was a section of the essay that dealt with how the Hofriyati conceptualise purity. In particular, they associate it with the quality of “whiteness’. Thus, Boddy notes:

White foods are generally classed as “clean” and are thought to “bring blood,” to increase the amount of blood in the body.’ In Hofriyat these are eggs, goat’s milk, goat’s milk cheese, cow’s milk, fish, rice, sugar, and white flour… There is another group of foods considered to be clean… These food are generally associated with Europeans, Egyptians, and Lebanese, that is, with people having light-or as villagers say, “white”-skin. (p. 690)

She then talks about the attitudes that the people of Hofriyat have towards skin colour:

Hofriyati are very conscious of skin color. White skin is clean, beautiful, and a mark of potential holiness. I, being Caucasian, was repeatedly told that my chances of getting into heaven, should I choose to become Muslim, were far greater than those of the average Sudani. This is because the Prophet Mohammed was white and all white-skinned peoples are in the favored position of belonging to his tribe (gabeela). Ranked in order of desirability, the skin color of villagers ranges from “light,” or asfar (yellow), to ahmar (red, somewhat darker than asfar), to akhdar (green, darker still), to azrag (blue) or “dark.” The term aswad (black) is usually reserved for Southern Sudanese and “Africans,” people who in earlier times could be enslaved. (p. 690)

Okay, so it isn’t possible to rule out the possibility that Western racial stereotypes have had some impact on the formation of these attitudes, but it is highly implausible that this is the whole story. If it is not the whole story, then we have at least some reason to suppose that it might not be everything that is going on in the case of similar attitudes towards skin colour in Western countries (though this is not logically entailed). Of course, it does not follow from any of this that there is a genetic component to these attitudes (not least, because in the case of the Hofriyati it seems that they are mainly a function of a contingent symbolism that equates whiteness with purity; and impurity with dirt, etc). However, what it does mean is that eradicating the kinds of attitudes uncovered by Kenneth and Mamie Clark – which I shouldn’t need to add is a highly desirable goal – is perhaps going to take more than simply erasing, and then ameliorating the effects of, white racism.

What Has Philosophy Done Lately?

In a previous post, I addressed the question of the value of philosophy. As one comment pointed out, even if it is granted that philosophy did many wonderful things in the past, there is still the obvious question: what has philosophy done for us lately?

Not surprisingly, I have to address this question when I teach my Introduction to Philosophy class. The students generally accept that philosophy has been of some service in the past, but they do want to know what the class has to offer them now (aside from the credit hours and knocking off a humanities requirement). Like most philosophy professors, I speak of the value of developing their intellectual abilities, of considering timeless problems, of becoming critical thinkers and of broadening their minds. Once in a while, a particularly clever student will ask the dreaded question: “can’t we get all that, plus some useful information and skills, from some other class?” Put in more general terms, the challenge is this: does philosophy have anything special to offer people today that they cannot get elsewhere?

Addressing this question first requires considering the nature of philosophy. Defining the word “philosophy” is easy enough. It means “the love of wisdom.” Of course, this does not say very much about what philosophy really is all about.

Plato offered a clear account of the nature of philosophy. Philosophers are lovers of wisdom and are distinct from the lovers of sights and sounds. His metaphysics and epistemology provided a clear distinction between philosophy and other fields. They also made it clear why philosophy has value.

To be specific, philosophers are concerned with the pure, perfect, and eternal forms (such as justice). These forms are components of the true reality and all other things are but inferior copies. Hence, knowledge (as opposed to mere opinion) is based on the forms. Roughly put, philosophy has value because it deals with what is true and real. In stark contrast, the lovers of sights and sounds are concerned with the inferior objects of the physical world. Hence, they deal with mere opinion rather than knowledge.

So, on Plato’s view, scientists (such as Wolpert) who study physical phenomena are not advancing knowledge. Instead, they are merely playing with copies and developing opinions. Thus, they are the ones that have contributed nothing to knowledge. They have merely piled up opinions.

An obvious reply to this is that there are excellent arguments against Plato’s epistemology and metaphysics. Such arguments would undercut the sort of case for philosophy’s value. A second obvious reply is that it seems problematic and even question begging to base an entire discipline on the very specific views of one person. Surely one should be suspicious of defining all of philosophy on the basis of one person, even if that person is Plato.

What is needed, obviously enough, is a suitable definition of philosophy. This definition needs to meet the conditions of a good definition (avoiding circularity, avoiding being too narrow or too broad, and so on), of course. With such a definition in hand, one can start looking to see what philosophy has done for us lately.

It should not be expected that such a definition would include everything that now gets labeled as philosophy by professional philosophers. Further, the definition might very well allow in things that many professional philosophers would reject.

I must admit that I do not have such a definition. I obviously have beliefs about what counts as philosophy, but I do not have a list that provides the necessary and sufficient conditions. I can, of course, point to what philosophers have done and what we count as philosophy. But, such an approach is sorely lacking. That task must fall to another time and to other minds.

For now, perhaps the current rough view of philosophy can be used to see if philosophy has done anything useful lately.

From a pragmatic standpoint, philosophy does do useful things: people get paid to teach it, students get credit to take classes in it, books are sold about it and so on. Of course, that is not the sort of value that is of concern here.

One problem with discerning the value of philosophy is that much of what philosophy used to do has been taken over by others. As noted in the earlier blog, philosophy gave rise to science and logic, but these areas have been taken over (partially or completely) by others. This process is ongoing and not just something that happened with the rise of formal science.

To give two examples, consider critical thinking and ethics. Not so long ago, critical thinking was largely considered to “belong” to philosophers. However, in recent years “critical thinking” has become as buzz phrase and many want a slice of the critical thinking pie (in part because there is now money to be made as critical thinking consultants). My own university recently had sessions on critical thinking for the faculty. Interestingly, philosophers were not involved. Further, there is a university wide Quality Enhancement Program (yet another buzz phrase) that is now fixated on critical thinking. Oddly enough, though I have taught the critical thinking class on campus for fifteen years, I was never asked to participate. None of my colleagues were asked, either. Apparently, this is not uncommon and it seems likely that critical thinking will, perhaps in short order, no longer be consider part of philosophy. If so, this will make philosophy seem even less useful.

In regards to ethics, many schools offer specialty ethics classes that are not taught by philosophers. For example, the school of business at my university has a business ethics class that is taught by a business professor. Similarly, there are other professional ethics classes taught within specific deparments. On one hand, this does make sense: someone in the field would tend to know more about the specific ethical expectations in the field.  This is one reason given for having specific ethics classes taken over by non-philosophy departments. On the other hand, since I would not be qualified to teach business classes or nursing classes, it seems that a business professor or nursing professor would not be qualified to teach ethics. Those more cynical than I might say that these departments created the ethics classes to boost their classes (department budgets and available faculty positions are often connected to the number of students enrolled). If ethics continues to be taken over by specific fields (analogous to how the sciences split off), then there will be less that philosophers can point to in terms of the value of their discipline.

Some people (including philosophers) have predicted the end of philosophy. Perhaps if philosophers are left with nothing useful to do, that will be the end of philosophy as an independent discipline. While parts of it will remain, they will be incorporated in other disciplines. Unless, of course, there is something philosophy does that is unique to philosophy and cannot be stolen away (then again, perhaps anything can be stolen).

One role that philosophers have long held and still hold is that of intellectual scouts. For example, in the case of the sciences, philosophers scouted out the intellectual territories that would eventually become the sciences. This scouting is, obviously enough, not physical scouting. Rather, philosophers explored possible methodology, questions, content and problems. From these explorations, philosophers developed rough maps. After the territory had been scouted, others came to these intellectual lands and began to colonize them. The initial crude villages grew into towns and then into cities. Naturally, those who work in these massive cities sometimes forget those early explorers who made the cities possible. However, the value of their efforts remain.

While some have claimed that there is nothing new under the sun, the scope of our ignorance seems to vastly exceed the scope of our knowledge. Literally and figuratively, there is at least one universe that we have but begun to explore. As such, intellectual scouts are still of great importance. While some of the scouting parties are launched from established cities (that is, scientists and such exploring their own fields) there are still undiscovered countries that belong to no other established discipline. Philosophy, I think, can and should stake her claim to these areas and set out once more in the spirit that got her started in the first place. Naturally, others will follow and build cities there. Some of them will remark about how useless philosophy has been and is, forgetting all the while the importance of scouts and explorers.

Human Studies & Experiments

Newsweek’s Sharon Begley recently wrote an article lamenting the red tape and paternalism interfering with research on humans.

In her article, she presents three main factors that impede such experiments.

First, she notes that the university panels that oversee human experimentation tend to be overprotective. As an example, she cites the restrictions placed on Scott Atran’s research regarding why people become terrorists.  He was not permitted to ask captured terrorists personal questions because this was regarded as violating their right to privacy.

Second, she points out that human studies and experiments do not have the “sex” appeal of basic science because they are not cutting edge or innovative enough. Of course, scientists are generally not permitted to do anything cutting edge with human subjects and this ensures that human research will be less “sexy.”

Third, she finishes with a common problem in academics: people in one field sometimes fail to see the value of research in another field and hence can be inclined to deny requests for experiments.

Not surprisingly, Begley sees these problems as interfering with important research. Her article also raises points that are philosophically interesting.

While the problems she presents are matters of concern, review panels for research are extremely important from a moral perspective. From a utilitarian standpoint, they can be justified because they serve to protect people from various harms.  Sadly, there are numerous examples in which research was conducted on human beings without such oversight. In the United States, one of the more infamous examples is the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in which 399 men were deceived and ultimately allowed to simply die. Cases such as this one show the clear need for careful review and regulation of human research.

Naturally, it might be argued that allowing unrestricted experimentation on humans would create more good than harm in general terms. After all, without such restrictions medical experimentation could be conducted more rapidly and perhaps more effectively. This would lead to more and better cures, thus outweighing any damage done to the test subjects. However, history seems to show that unrestricted research tends to have the opposite effect: it often harms human subjects with little or no positive return. The infamous Japanese experiments in the Second World War provide disturbing examples of this.

A more reasonable approach would be to retain the review of human research while taking steps to ensure that only legitimate moral concerns are taken into account.

Take, for example, the research on why terrorists become terrorists. While there should be clear moral limits regarding what can be done to captured terrorists, it does not seem reasonable to be overly concerned with their right to privacy in personal matters. Presumably Atran had no intent to threaten or torture the prisoners if they failed to answer his questions Hence, if they wished to maintain their privacy, they could do so by simply not answering his questions. Further, the potential benefits of his research seem to outweigh concerns about the privacy rights of imprisoned terrorists. If asking them personal questions could help reduce terrorism in the world, then this seems to be a reasonable research request to grant.

Of course, there is the concern that prisoners cannot provide informed consent and that they might say things that would result in additional prosecution. The first concern is legitimate. After all, if a person cannot provide such informed consent, then making them research subjects seems morally suspect at best. Imprisoned terrorists might believe that they have no choice but to participate or might mistake the researcher for someone who has been sent to interrogate them. While these are legitimate concerns, there seem to be clear ways around them. The prisoners could be clearly informed as to what the researcher intends and assured that their involvement is completely voluntary. Provided that such steps are taken, it would seem that informed consent could be provided even by imprisoned terrorists.

The second concern has some legitimacy in that the researcher could indirectly harm the subjects should the subjects reveal things that would result in further prosecution. This is based on the  legitimate concern that potential harms to the subjects should always be taken into account when research is being conducted.

In the case of imprisoned terrorists it is tempting to say that it would be good if they revealed new information to the researcher. After all, if plans for an attack were revealed, then the attack could be thwarted and lives saved. Or, if the subjects were revealed to be involved in other crimes, then they should be punished for them. While there are good grounds to believe in a right to privacy, this right does not seem to extend to concealing past or planned misdeeds.

Obviously, not every case will be like the imprisoned terrorists case. However, the review of any case can benefit from the proper application of practical and moral reasoning. The challenge is developing the ethical and practical guides in such a way that the results are correct more often than not. This is, of course, part of the general challenge of getting through life. This, obviously enough, assumes that there are better and worse results.

In regards to the fact that human research is not as “sexy” as basic research, it seems that something should be done to change that perspective. While basic research is important, human research is also critical as well. Perhaps Justin Timberlake can help researchers with this.

More seriously, the importance of human research can be stressed and this might help improve its image among those who dole out grants.

Finally, there is the matter of how academics in one field sometimes fail to see the value of research in other fields. While I have not researched this matter rigorously , I have been a professor for quite some time and have had opportunities to observe and discuss this matter.

In some cases, academics are reasonably well informed about other fields and do their homework when they are called upon to make judgments about such fields. In other cases, academic folks are woefully ignorant of other fields and can even regard them with unconcealed contempt.

While professors and other academic types are often rather busy, it seems reasonable to expect people on such panels to  take the time to have at least some basic grasp of the research they are assessing. Also, steps can and should be taken to build understanding across the disciplines. While a person cannot be expected to master yet another field, it is possible to develop some basic understanding of and sympathy for other fields. This would be beneficial in the context of these review panels and in general.

With such improved understanding, panel members can better review proposals. This will make it more likely that beneficial research projects will gain approval and this would be a gain for humanity. Obviously, the panels  will still reject some proposals but at least it will be more likely that the rejection will be for legitimate reasons.

Do you want fries with that?

There have been posts here about the job prospects of philosophers.  Here’s something depressing (but also different and quirky) from Dr. Work at the Guardian.  If you haven’t thrown up on your keyboard after reading it, you can follow a further link to the Leeds department’s employability guide for philosophers

In this connection, you might be reminded of Lily Tomlin’s line:  ‘When I was young, I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realise I should have been more specific.’

The Value of Philosophy, Yet Again

One of the most annoying things about being a professional philosopher is the fact that I so often am called upon to defend the value of my profession and my discipline. One thing that makes it especially annoying is that so many philosophers have written so much about the value of philosophy (including, of course, Russell’s work on the subject). One would think that the value of philosophy would be a settled matter by now. However, this is not the case.

Like almost all professors, I have to deal with the occasional student who questions the value of my discipline in general or my class in particular. I have, naturally enough, worked out a well developed reply to such questions. In addition to the challenges put forth by students, philosophers also face a challenge put forth by fellow academics. For example, The Philosophers’ Magazine (third quarter 2008, pages 120-126) features an article by Julian Baggini in which Lewis Wolpert’s view of philosophy is discussed. Wolpert puts forth the usual charge against philosophy: “…philosophy is not successful. It has achieved nothing.” (page 121). He does concede that Aristotle did make a difference and does allow a place for political and moral philosophy. Other than that, he regards philosophy as not making “the slightest difference” in regards to what we know.

Naturally enough, these criticisms have some plausibility. Philosophy has long been attacked because it bakes no bread, builds no weapons, and seems to do nothing. In short, philosophy seems to be useless. If this is the case, then philosophy professors like me have worked out quite a scheme: we get paid to achieve nothing. However, I think that Wolpert and the other critics are fundamentally mistaken about the value of philosophy.

One stock argument is to present the accomplishment of philosophers such as Thales, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton and others. Since these people accomplished so much in terms of science, mathematics, and geometry it would seem mistaken to regard philosophy as lacking in achievements.
Of course, there is an obvious reply to this. While Thales, Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton were all philosophers, it could be argued that their achievements were within other disciplines. For example, Descartes’ work in mathematics and geometry were great achievements-of mathematics and geometry. To use analogy, while I am a philosopher and I have won 5Ks and 10Ks, it would be incorrect to say that philosophy has achieved victories in running. Rather, I just happen to be a philosopher who is also a runner. It is as a runner that I accomplish such achievements. Likewise, it is as a scientist that Newton accomplished his great achievements. Thus, the mere fact that philosophers have had great achievements does not entail that philosophy has achieved anything.

Another stock argument is to present achievements that seem to clearly be within the discipline of philosophy. The modern sciences, it is often argued, arose from philosophy (mainly what was known as “natural philosophy”). Further, logic, critical thinking and reasoning are all within the domain of philosophy. Wolpert himself notes the importance of avoiding logical contradictions (page 125) when using the scientific method. Thus, it would seem that philosophy has achieved something after all.
Not surprisingly, there are ways to reply to this defense of philosophy.

In regards to the sciences, it can be argued that while philosophers did contribute to the rise of the sciences, they did so as scientists (or pre-scientists). This is a variation on the argument given above. It could be conceded that (as Wolpert does for Aristotle) that philosophy did give rise to the sciences. However, it could be argued that this is analogous to parents having children who accomplish great things. While the child would not exist without the parents, the children’s accomplishments are their own and hence do not count as achievements for the parents. Philosophy can, of course, take pride in bringing such children into the world. But that is all the credit she deserves.

The matter of logic (broadly taken) does present a tougher dragon to slay. On the face of it, there seem to be two important points here. First, logic belongs to philosophy. Second, logic is extremely useful and seems to be quite a feather in philosophy’s cap. Not to brag, but logic is critical to the information age. Without such logic, there would be no PCs, no internet, no Nintendo Wiis, no Xboxes (360 or otherwise), and no iPods. This alone should refute the charge that philosophy has achieved nothing. Of course, logic and its various domains (such as critical thinking) are also useful in many other ways. Imagine a world without logic and critical thinking and their value seems evident.

This would seem to provide philosophy with an iron clad claim to achievements. However, perhaps philosophy can still be robbed of her prize.

One way to rob philosophy in this matter is to argue that logic belongs to another discipline or that specific types of logic belong to specific disciplines. For example, symbolic logic could be seen as belonging to the discipline of mathematics. The logic used in computers could be seen as belonging to computer science. Scientific and professional reasoning (law, economics, business, etc.) could be seen as belonging to those disciplines. This approach, obviously enough, mimics that used by Socrates against Ion. Socrates argued that the specific content of a poem belonged not to poetry but rather to some other field. For example, while chariot racing is described in the Iliad, the art of racing does not belong to poetry and poets cannot claim the accomplishments of the chariot racers as their own. Likewise, while philosophers talk about logic, logic does not belong to philosophy. Hence, philosophy deserves no credit for the value of logic. Rather, proper credit belongs to all the various disciplines that own a piece of logic.

In defense of philosophy, it can be argued that while other disciplines have employed and developed logic, philosophy deserves the credit for creating logic. To use an analogy, to deny philosophy credit for logic would be like denying Thomas Edison credit for his inventions because other people have developed them in so many new and useful ways over the years.

While this seems like a reasonable argument, there is a way to counter it. When I was in graduate school, I first encountered what turned out to be a standard means of arguing that philosophy accomplishes nothing. Put bluntly, the tactic is to argue that every accomplishment attributed to philosophy belongs to another discipline. This is often done by defining “philosophy” in such a way that achieving results means that one is no longer practicing philosophy but doing something else. For example, once a philosopher begins to develop logic, then he is no longer doing philosophy. Hence, philosophy did not even give the world the beginnings of logic.

This approach does, in a way, work. If the discipline of philosophy is defined in a way that precludes achievement, then philosophy can (by definition) never achieve anything. The same sort of method can be used to “prove” that a liberal can never accomplish anything. Just define “liberal” such that if someone achieves something, then she is not a liberal.

There seems to be no compelling reason why philosophers should accept this view of philosophy. Naturally enough, those who claim philosophy accomplishes nothing would need to provide an adequate defense of such a definition. Philosophers are, of course, obligated to provide an alternative definition.