The Useful & The Useless

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A stock criticism of philosophy is that it is useless. This, of course, has a certain appeal. After all, philosophy does not seem to do anything obviously useful like baking bread, killing people, selling beer, or curing cancer.

One stock reply to this charge is that while philosophy might not be useful, it is still valuable. Value, one might argue, is not merely a matter of usefulness. While this has a certain appeal to it, it also seems to be a bit of a surrender. As such, I will avoid taking this approach.

Another stock reply is that the definition of “useful” that is limited to such things as baking, building and killing is far too narrow. Under a broader (and superior, a philosopher might say)definition, philosopher would be found to be eminently useful.

While this might strike some as a mere semantic trick of the sort beloved by philosophers, it does seem to be a legitimate approach under certain conditions. Obviously, if a philosopher employs an ad hoc definition to “prove” that philosophy is useful, then this would hardly do. Equally obviously, if the philosopher’s critic simply insisted on excluding philosophy from the realm of the useful by fiat, then this would also hardly do. What is needed, obviously enough, is an account of the useful and the useless that does not beg any questions. Providing such an account would be rather challenging. After all, philosophers will want to slide the definition so that philosophy is useful and those who disagree will wish to narrow the definition so that philosophy is excluded. Any compromise might be regarded as unthinkable-a selling out of one’s position to the enemy. However, a rational discussion over this matter has to begin with a willingness on both sides to at least consider the possibility of yielding some ground in the face of cogent arguments.

Since this is but a brief blog post, I will not endeavor to settle this matter or even make much progress. Instead, I will just engage is some sketching in regards to the useful.

While people often say that something is useful, it seems unlikely that usefulness is a intrinsic property of anything. Rather, when someone says that X is useful, they mean that X is useful (or useless) for Y (where Y is a person or some purpose). For example, running long distances is useful for people training for a marathon. However, it would seem rather useless for people training to design web pages.

On this view, usefulness would seem to be relative to the person or purpose. Thus, usefulness would be (to steal from Kant) hypothetical  rather than categorical.

In this case, philosophy would obviously be useful to many (if not all) professional philosophers. After all, it provides the basis of their employment and gives them something to do. This makes philosophy as useful as a large range of activities and professions that provide employment and activity.  It would also be useful to those who publish, purchase or read philosophy books (and other material). It would also be useful to the students who get credit hours towards graduation. This usefulness could, obviously enough, be extended quite far. For example, comedians who make fun of philosophy and people who enjoy arguing that philosophy is useless would actually find it useful in that it gives them a target.

This view also would entail that things that some see as paradigms of usefulness could also be useless. For example, someone who elected to live “off the grid” could regard a field such as electrical engineering as useless in that it would be useless to him in his chosen way of life.

I suspect, however, that critics of philosophy would not accept this line of thought. This sort of usefulness/uselessness  seems to be far too broad in that almost anything could be useful  or useless simply because someone finds it useful or useless in some manner. To add a few more lines to the sketch, the critic of philosophy no doubt wants the usefulness to be far more robust. Philosophers, I should think, would also want something more robust than this.

This then turns away from considering useful in terms of “useful for who?” and to the other path, namely “useful for what(purpose)?” This would seem to move a bit beyond the subjectivism of “useful for who?” and to a certain relativity, namely usefulness relative to a purpose.

On this sort of view, the usefulness of X would be defined in terms of what sort of purposes X can advance. In the example above, long distance running would be useful for training for longer races (10Ks and up, perhaps).  As another example, running instances as DPS in WoW and observing other players tanking would be useful for learning how to tank. Of course, some might regard playing a video game to learn how to play it better as not being very useful. Likewise, even if philosophy is useful for certain things (like giving philosophers a job) it might be seen as not useful.

Of course, it cannot be taken as being “not useful” in the strict sense. After all, philosophy does have many uses (as noted above). Rather, when the critic says that philosophy is useless, she most likely is making a normative judgment about the value of the uses of philosophy. To say that philosophy is useless thus seems  to say that the uses of philosophy are without value.

Of course, this raises the matter of determining value. As with usefulness, value seems to often be subjective  to the person doing the assessment or relative to the purpose at hand. Then again, perhaps there is some sort of intrinsic value that can be used to ultimately distinguish the truly useful from the truly useless.

This has, obviously enough, been a mere sketch of some of the debate and I do not claim to have settled anything at all. However, I think that progress has been made in that some of the terrain has been mapped out and some vague goals have been set.

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35 Comments.

  1. Mike, I have to admit that I haven’t got much patience for these kinds of arguments! Philosophical apologias come from the right place, as if it were an olive branch to people who just aren’t interested in philosophy. But conclusions at this level of abstraction end up being self-deprecating and elusive. The only way to show the value of philosophy is to get people to do it. Which is pulling teeth, but whatever, life is hard.

    Here’s one use to philosophy: it’s conflict management. It trains you to anticipate your critics ahead of time. It creates confidence and reduces fear of debate. It makes appeal to anger and violence unnecessary as a first resort. Etc.

    But that’s philosophy in general, as a subject. Contrast: I am unsure of the value of professional philosophy. One way of evaluating whether or not something is useless is by looking to see how often it’s noticed among people who specialize in the subject. Rumor has it that the average philosophy article is cited 1.2 times. Hence, for all intents and purposes, 50% of the work done in the professional field is of little to no significance to the field. If we want to be totally honest, we might as well admit up front: “At least half of philosophy is useless.”

  2. I look at this in pretty much the same way as Wilde looked upon Beauty. It might be useless,in the sense of lacking some describable telos, but its uselessness might be a virtue.

  3. Oh and I don’t agree that marathon training improves your 10K time :-)

  4. It would be better to say that philosophy has no use because nothing can’t have a use. But then we might add that philosophy is an activity.

    Saying that “philosophy is useful” is like saying “thought is useful”.
    Nothing much is said.

  5. It seems to me that philosophy spends too much of its time defending its right to exist. Unless the accusations are true, someone should come up with an all purpose argument showing that in fact it serves some broader purpose than the amusement of its practitioners.

  6. I do sometimes (often) think that it might be a mistake to even enter into the discussion of whether philosophy is useful or not. After all, that does seem to take on the burden of proof. Given that philosophy certainly seems to have done a great deal, it would seem that this burden rests on those who would make the accusation.

    I do have a stock set of arguments I use to reply to the claim that philosophy is useless. Based on these, I think that philosophy has an excellent claim to being useful, even if defined in very concrete and practical terms (after all, critical thinking is obviously useful).

    I do think that the challenge to philosophy can actually be very useful. After all, it is easy for an academic field to become isolated in its ivory tower and for the vines of dogma to wrap the tower. Being forced to sally out into the daylight can be a good thing. After all, Socrates and Plato were motivated (in part) by the sophists. Those who question the usefulness of philosophy can pose a similar challenge.

    Naturally, other fields should also have their gadflies as well.

  7. Ralph Sabella has rightly suggested that someone should come up with an all purpose argument showing that Philosophy serves a broader purpose than amusement. In this connection I suggest that it confers survival value on the human species.
    Philosophy is not just some sort of weird practice only carried out by clever people some of whom learn their living at it. Philosophy is an innate propensity, i.e. a genuinely human thing, closely associated with the instinct of curiosity. Humans are naturally philosophical, and were so, ages before Thales of Miletus. So Philosophical thinking has been going for some time. It is not some game we have made up as a diversion, we just cannot help ourselves, we are in various degrees of ability, a philosophical species. Think of the philosophical questions young children perpetually ask. Nearly everybody has a viewpoint on questions like, Why are we here? Is there a God? Is the world really as we see it? Should I follow a moral code?
    Some people choose to study and be instructed Philosophy in an attempt to understand better, and possibly explain, what confronts us in this place in which we find ourselves. Surely this in itself is useful. The better one can think and and analyse and create solutions to problems surely the livelihood of survival is enhanced.
    I am well aware that philosophy alone, has not made life saving advances as is the case of Medical science but Scientific methodology is in itself a philosophical process, an extension of what was often previously just thoroughgoing philosophical thought.
    If we could somehow stop being philosophical I am sure the species would loose a substantial part of its ability to survive on this planet, and it is here that I identify its use.

  8. Most intriguing Mr. Bird. I suppose I have to agree. I myself was thinking around similar lines as I read the above article. However, perhaps we who call ourselves philosophers should consider that we may be providing an unnecessarily long answer to a question that does not require it: the average man on the street or critic of philosophy is likely to be of the sort who say “History is useless because its already happened and there’s nothing new”. Although that may be a whole other debate in itself for us, most people will say these things and not expect any real answer, let alone a comprehensive one including several well thought-out arguments. Is our long response merely part of our nature as philosophers? Or is it the result of a slight fear — brought to the foreground by our critical thinking — that they are right?

    No matter what the answer may be,
    it has been very good to see
    so many thoughts on the usefulness of philosophy.

  9. Re: Sleuth August 5th.
    An interesting reply here. Since I was a student I have never failed to be dismayed and perplexed by the prolixity and obscurity of many those, both ancient and modern, who purport to be philosophers of note. “Whenever is he/she going to reach the point?” I have often asked myself; and when the point is, at great length reached, it is again often, no more than the ‘bleeding obvious’, to quote Basil Fawlty. Not only that, but the main thrust of the argument has yet to be developed, and when that is accomplished, somehow or the other, all is stifled by its own language. We find another appalling characteristic; sentences running to hundreds or words, not to speak of parentheses, which by the time one has ploughed through them, one has lost the gist of what was being said in the first place.
    I appreciate that philosophy often deals with abstract and profound problems and one must be thoroughgoing. However it is of no help if the language and sentential structure is not abundantly clear and concise, conveying the writer’s meaning unambiguously. That said however, I am not maintaining that the style of writing I am criticising, has never been the vehicle of great philosophical insight. There are philosophers who do write in an educated and learned manner, which is a pleasure to read. Whether or not one agrees with their findings, one is left in little doubt concerning what is intended. Out of this I think the usefulness of philosophy is greatly threatened by those who cannot, or will not, write it attractively. A degree of conciseness and clarity would surely draw a larger more sympathetic readership.
    This I think, may be a contentious issue, and I accordingly refrain from naming those, who in my opinion are of dull obscurity, or those of crystal clarity, living or dead.

  10. A truth that all should swiftly realise, Mr. Bird; it is surprising how few are able to notice the value (however it may be discerned) of clear communication.

    One would think that philosophers should be eager to express themselves with colour and precision.

    I wonder if critics of philosophy would deem communication, such as that which you have described, to be useful.

  11. Don,

    That is a reasonable concern. When I was in grad school, my advisor always told his classes about the grandmother rule: you should be able to explain your view to your grandmother in 10 minutes or less. While some might take issue with the stereotyping of grandmothers, it always struck me as a good rule in its intent.

    In case you are wondering, the needlessly complicated and painful writing of many philosophers hurts my soul.*

    *Assuming I have one. If not, it hurts my neural states, functional states, or whatever it is that hurts.

  12. “Assuming I have one. If not, it hurts my neural states, functional states, or whatever it is that hurts.”

    …or that you think hurts.

  13. I’m ignorant of the subtleties, but I’m not sure why philosophy gets to take the credit for critical thinking and communication.
    Every day, average (i.e. non-philosophically appraised) people, engage in critical thinking and communication, just to get through the damn day. Most of us call it living.
    I won’t besmirch the luxury of philosophical pondering – entertainment after all is a luxury for us all – but let us not assume any greater importance to it than an Oprah book-club recommendation; it may flame a fad for an instant, but it’s no forest fire of any consequence.

  14. Re Emily: August 11th

    I believe you are on the right track in what you initially say. I suggest however that Philosophical thinking is an innate propensity we all do it. Some are better at it than others and they call themselves first and foremost Philosophers. Everybody has opinions and beliefs and will respond to questions about god, the hereafter, is stealing good or bad, and so on. Philosophy is in fact embraced by what you call living. Possibly some professional Philosophers may be a bit more adept at the so called critical thinking and communication, but they are far from fool-proof. I suggest that nobody of normal mental ability could really be described as Non-philosophically appraised any more than they could be described as unable to run; we can all do it but vary in our ability that is all.

  15. Don, I wasn’t rigorous enough – I meant “philosophically appraised” as in some measure of formal training or learning.

    I couldn’t agree more that we are all philosophers to one degree or another, it just passes as gossip, or chatting, or arguing in my world…

    Part of the issue I have with the genre is the modifying of current language to extend additional or indeed different meaning to words, and the need to verify the meaning of a word – I like to consider that critical thinking is not that far removed from common sense, and yet it seems necessary to qualify exactly what I mean by “common sense.” It’s quite Clintonesque: in the sentence “I like to pat my dog” apart from the definition of self, the myriad pleasure-pain dichotomies, I have to take pains to articulate the action of patting, and metaphysically explain dog. The difference between me patting the dog and a philosopher doing the same is of course light years apart; for the dog there is no difference at all (and I can prove that empirically)!

  16. Re Emily August 11th
    I have no philosophical objection to what you state here, which is of course a substantial philosophical viewpoint. I would like perhaps to ask you to clarify and or expand on some points where I have some doubt. That being the case we would become engrossed in a fairly deep philosophical enquiry. Out of that one or other of us, or maybe both, may become aware of something which was not previously known or apparent to us. If at all possible, I am sure we would both like, to get down to the truth of things. We may eventually agree to disagree, but so what, no harm is done, and we would have at the least exercised our philosophical abilities, not to speak of the employment of common sense, an essential structure in the philosophical anatomy.
    My Post of August 5th does throw some more light on my opinion of philosophy.

  17. Re Don, Aug 11.

    Hi Don, again, personally, I find nothing contradictory about two people (or more) engaging in constructive debate.

    I just don’t see “philosophy” as anything more than academia imposing a hold on an inherent human trait.

    I’m sure this is of no interest to anyone, but I feel a little history of why I ended up here, and started bugging people, is needed: I just read Badcock’s “Evolutionary psychology : a critical introduction” (I’ve been reading up on all aspects of pre-history and following developments in anthropology, evolution and genetics for the past few years, purely for my own education and entertainment – I’m fascinated by nature and man’s place in it). It became apparent that I was significantly lacking in any critical understanding of philosophy which is a foundation of modern scientific endeavor, although I am familiar with the history (I just took two courses in the history of science which I aced!). Casual reading around the subject soon exposed me to the multitude of theories of philosophy, none of which, to me, encapsulated any reality that I was living in. So I needed a book to delve into, and Palmer’s “Does the Center Hold” seemed to fit the bill – it got very good reviews (and a lot of them) on Amazon. I’m only on chapter 5 (about God) but 1 thru 4 introduced the basics.

    So, I’m no expert, but I think a little above the average! (I have an Hons Degree in Engineering, UK not US)

    Back to Palmer: The plethora of maybes and probablys makes it quite clear that after a couple of thousand years of philosophizing there hasn’t been a theory that really holds any water. I guess at heart I’m an empiricist – I like a theory that can be tested. I don’t see much difference in arguing the different theories of philosophy than arguing the existence of God with a believer. It’s a matter of faith, and no amount of “facts”, “truths” or any other measure of “reality” can co-exist with the supernatural or the ephemera of thought.

    Again, I keep coming back to “common sense” – I know this is another of those perspective deals, and that everyone is unique, but there is a general “accepted” knowledge of reality. Now again, I’m in America, so the general idea of reality is pretty distorted over here – not only is this the most religious country in the western world, it’s also entrenched in the religiosity of celebrity.

    Nevertheless, I believe that evolution has gifted us a basic grasp of common sense (morality if you prefer). Just as with language, a basic framework, within our DNA, is in place for the acquisition of cultural influences. Yeah, the old nurture/nature debate…

    Your phrase “but so what, no harm is done” I feel is untrue. I don’t doubt the mental attributes of engaging in healthy debate – it’s entertaining and good for your brain – but once this activity is bolstered by academic accreditation, the opinion of “philosophers” becomes more dangerous. I can take on board the opinion of a physicist who is trained and experienced in her field more readily because there is an empirical foundation to her science (even if the current topic is more esoteric or wrapped in theoretical concepts). In philosophy, by default, as I have already seen in just a few exchanges here, someone is going to argue the opposite, or an alternative – it seems the nature of the philosophical beast is contrariness. When Professor Smith says ‘run for the hills, aliens are coming,’ the media (inevitably) hypes Professor Smiths academic qualifications – but should we pay equal attention to the revelation if Prof. Smith were an Astrophysicist or a Philosopher?

  18. Re: Emily August 12th
    Hello Emily.With the greatest respect I think you may be approaching philosophy with some pre conceived ideas. There is nothing wrong with, that but perhaps you should give the subject more of a chance to prove its value. I think you are expecting to find things which Philosophy does not actually guarantee to give. Cut and dried answers is not its remit, although the subject it not shy of providing them where appropriate. As a philosophy undergraduate I was introduced to the Principle of Charity and Humanity. This entailed amongst other things an attempt to suspend our own beliefs, and seek a sympathetic understanding of the new idea or ideas. We assume for the moment the new ideas are true even though our initial reaction is to disagree; we seek to tolerate ambiguity for the larger aim of understanding ideas which might prove useful and helpful.

    One of the great mysteries presently lies in what is called the Hard Problem of Consciousness. T. H. Huxley remarked in1866 “How is it that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp” This problem has yet to be solved, and philosophers battled with it long before it caught the imagination of scientists. The battle still continues with much co operation between philosophers and scientists. The valuable philosophical input has been over the years immense and still continues. Like you, I tend in the final analysis to be an empiricist, and feel that if an answer to this problem is ever reached it will be in the laboratory rather than philosopher’s armchair. This is very often the case, but only because a firm philosophical grounding has already been established out of which practical work can flourish. However do not think Philosophers never venture into the laboratory or scientists into the philosophical armchair.

    There is food for thought from the Philosopher Colin Mc Ginn who in his 1989 article “Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?”suggests that the human mind is innately incapable of comprehending itself entirely, and that this incapacity spawns the puzzles of consciousness that have preoccupied Western philosophy since Descartes. Thus, McGinn’s answer to the hard problem of consciousness is that humans cannot find the answer, their cognitive acumen is not up to it. There is no right or wrong about this. At the moment it remains a fascinating possibility well worth bearing in mind.

    I think you may be forgetting that Moral Philosophy, the Philosophy of Law, The Philosophy of Social science, The Philosophy of Language, the Philosophy of Religion also exist amongst other disciplines in which not a lot of experimental work is possible. Yes there remain agreements and disagreements but notwithstanding, progress is made, but rarely can a crucial experiment be made to prove a point. It is not Philosophy which is at fault here, it is the nature of the subject which causes difficulties. These are all taught at undergraduate level and above for those who wish to specialise.
    If you want to see more on the Philosophical input to Science I refer you to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_science This is a fascinating article well worth reading.

    With respect to all contributors you should not judge what you read here as fully representative of the philosophical world. The contributors range from highly regarded and competent professional Philosophers, others who are not professional, and those with similar qualifications in other disciplines who are of a philosophical turn of mind. No doubt there are some with no academic qualifications who are quite capable of providing valuable input. To get the full flavour of the subject you really need to attend philosophical conferences, or better still enrol as an undergraduate at University for there you will see it laid out, as it cannot be here. Be warned however, it’s far from an easy option, and yes, your common sense and empiricism will be exercised.

  19. Thanks Don, I’ll take everything you’ve said on-board.
    Fortunately there’s a Philo 101 just starting so maybe I’ll sign-up.
    x

  20. Ben, July 30.
    >Here’s one use to philosophy:
    >it’s conflict management.

    Hi Ben,
    Can you expand on that more?

    Again, I think what you are calling “philosophy” is in fact something that professionals in all sorts of daily encounters resort to – empathy of the other view point.

    It’s a little like saying – Here’s a use of philosophy: bus timetables – you have to put yourself in the position of the customer you are trying to serve, rather than just getting all your buses around a city as efficiently as possible.

  21. I’m through to the Ethics section of Does the Center Hold? (Donald Palmer). For some reason Hobbes’ theory is exposed to Popper’s “Principle of Falsifiability”, although none of the preceding philosophers and their theories were given such a critical evaluation. Also we get “Any theory that accounts for every possible case in effect accounts for no case. Any “theory” [his quotes] that is compatible with every possible state of affairs is no theory at all because real theories must exclude some possibilities.” He then goes on to say “If Hobbes had stated his proposition differently, we might have more sympathy with it.” Isn’t this just having your cake and eating it (a phrase I never understood!). Poor old Hobbes has a theory that encompasses everything but we must reject it because, come on, what theory really accounts for everything?! More semantics and word play…

    Next, Hedonism, so that should be fun! (Is fun allowed in Philosophy?)

  22. Emily – think of it this way. A theory that is consistent with all possible states of affairs is consistent with all possible worlds. It is therefore incapable of picking out THIS world, our world. But what we minimally require of a useful theory is that it can pick out THIS world. Hence a theory that is consistent with all possible states of affairs is not really a theory at all – at least not in the scientific sense (Popper is concerned primarily with distinguishing real science from pseudoscience).

  23. Emily,

    Not to presume to speak for Ben, but he might mean conflict resolution. One of my retired philosophy colleagues taught that subject.

    You do make a good point with you bus timetable analogy.

  24. Emily,

    Palmer’s book is a great choice, by the way. While it sort of skims the surface, it does provide a rather fun approach to philosophy. As you point out, though, it is interesting that Hobbes’ gets The Popper Treatment.

    The method in play seems to be the idea that a theory must be subject to testing. An important aspect of this is that there must be a way (if only in theory) that a theory could be disconfirmed. Oversimplifying things a bit, the proponents of the theory must be able to describe what would count as evidence against that theory. If the theory is such that nothing could count as evidence against it, then this is a problem.

    An example I use to illustrate this is the invisible unicorn game from when I was a kid. Some kid would say “I have pet unicorn!” and of course everyone would be excited and want to see it. The kid would then say that it was invisible. If you tried to touch it, he would say it was too fast. Every time a kid tried to disprove the existence of the unicorn, the “owner” would just counter that with some claim that the unicorn could not be detected in that way. This did not, obviously enough, prove that the kid had an invisible unicorn-he was just clever at making it seem impossible to prove him wrong.

    Naturally, it is important distinguish between this sort of way of “countering” objections in an ad hoc manner and legitimate ways of doing so. Not surprisingly, there is considerable debate about this (for example, consider the burden of proof fallacy).

    Fun is allowed in philosophy, though many philosophers try to prove otherwise….

  25. Oh dear….I’ve a feeling Mike and I might have a difference in emphasis here. “The Popper Treatment” (love the term!) should only be given to those theories that promote themselves as being part of genuine science. Not all theories aspire to this and many of those that do (eg astrology) fail this test. The unicorn example seems closer to verificationism to me, which is a slightly different thing….Popper could get quite touchy when the two were conflated.

  26. re: Andy, SAug 18
    >Not all theories aspire to this
    >and many of those that do
    >(eg astrology) fail this test.

    And how does Philosophy fair, exposed to the same beam of scrutiny?

  27. Emily -the principle is applied, by Popper, to demarcate science proper from science ersatz. I think that philosophy tends to come a cropper when it views itself as doing the business of science…but Popper’s falsificationism is not, as it were, self-defeating since if you are a Popperian you do not think that philosophy is science (contrast this with the attitude of astrologers who take themselves to be making genuine predictions). Verificationism on the other hand was used by the likes of Ayer to distinguish the meaningless from the meaningful utterance and is taken by many to render ITSELF meaningless.

  28. Re Emily August 19th
    If I understand you correctly I think you are asking if Philosophy, i.e. all that it embraces, is falsifiable, as per Popper’s definition of falsifiability. I think that is asking too much. I cannot think of any way how one could say with any confidence, yes it is in principle falsifiable. For instance if somebody claimed that ‘There is life on the planet Neptune’ than the statement is falsifiable, notwithstanding that technologically we are presently unable to go there. If we do get there eventually and find one little green man then according to Popper the original Hypothesis or Theory falls to the ground. It was falsifiable, and eventually we did falsify it i.e it was capable of falsification and we did falsify it eventually. If you understand what Falsification is and how it relates to the problem of Induction you may see why I suggest you are asking too much. How ever the possibility exists that certain statements made by philosophers could be falsifiable. Statements in the nature of All S is P is falsifiable we would look for an S which is not P. In this connection Popper would argue what is the use of continuously looking for Ps which are S look for a P which is not.
    Personally I have never really understood Popper’s disdain for Induction, which is constant verification that such and such is the case. I am sure that on the shop floor of scientific enquiry scientists use both Falsification and Verification as and when the work or circumstances demand and many may well be who are not familiar with those terms, because from common sense aspect, is seems that is the way to go about things. In this connection you may like to have a look at John Stuart Mill’s Canons of Inductive Enquiry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mill%27s_Methods Very interesting. I wonder how many scientists have heard of them, but doubtless they are employed as and when necessary in scientific work, the establishment of scientific hypotheses, and verification thereof.

  29. Andy,

    I’ll grant that the unicorn example doesn’t quite fit. But, you cannot deny that everything goes better with unicorns. :)

  30. Mike- just imagine were a unicorn to be discovered….vast tracts of linguistic philosophy would need to be rewritten :-)

  31. Hi Don,
    The issue with Mill (and Abu Ali Sina Balkhi) is the period in the past (and distant past) in which they were formulating their ideas.
    Undoubtedly great theories have been proposed before the technology was available to verify (or refute) them (Darwin).
    Avicenna, I think, was a genius of his time, the breadth and depth of his knowledge and understanding was simply epic – but he still worked within the confines of his time and notably, his religion.
    As with most ideas, words are often a semantic point of contention (The attribution of “Theory” is still not a universally understood concept outside of science). Mill’s use of “phenomenon” has given sucker to supernatural investigators observations, and indeed, if you are already inclined to such beliefs his Methods can be used to support their claims. (Look at Creationists and their “science”).
    I think that your claim that Mills is unknown is similar to those that surround Alfred Russel Wallace – although pertinent (or influential) at the time, either their forward progress or addition to the canon of knowledge has not been significant. Wallace went on to dabble in the paranormal; Mills at best restated greek logic for the 19th Century, and has since been eclipsed by revolutions in the molecular and atomic sciences.

    I think on Popper you and I are saying the same thing – Philosophical theories are by their very nature unfalsifiable. My issue here again, is that, if you wish to apply any philosophical theory to a real world situation, it must stand up to the rigor of falsifiability. Without that we are open to the possibility of social manipulation. Now, in a modern nation, i doubt that could ever happen, but smaller, less stable, more vulnerable nations are indeed at the whim of powerful forces.

    Despite the claims of others, most of us live in a physical world, and as such it should be protected by demonstratively scientific means.

  32. Hi Emily.
    I think that what Philosophy and Science have in common is that they are both of a tentative nature. This means likely to be revised in the light of new knowledge. But perhaps when we speak of these two disciplines they are no more than different aspects for the same occupation; curious human beings trying to find out how things are.
    Concerning Mill’s Methods, I suggest that he did not “invent” them he merely wrote in detail how the human mind works when confronted by problems needing explanation. As you know Avicenna’s expression of what we now would call Scientific Methodology, in parts, covered what Mill much later expressed. Again I would not claim they were laying down Laws of procedure but endeavouring to clarify How humans think when confronted by the natural world. The passage of time of course lays bare some inexactitudes in what they said. Thus they do come in for some amendments of a constructive and refining nature But the essence, of what they said, especially in Mill, seems unassailable.
    There has been some criticism of Mill’s use of the word Phenomenon but I cannot recall it in detail, and at the moment am unsure where to check it out. However I do not think He can be held responsible for those who use his methods in Pseudo-science. That does not invalidate what he said, the logic of his methods can still remain valid; where the error lies is to be found in examination of the premisses which are mostly laughingly bizarre and faulty. Thus we have cases where the scientific wing of the Creationists can produce logically valid arguments the conclusions of which are false.
    I note what you say about the application of the Word “Theory”. Some years ago I studied Logic at A Level. We were introduced to Deductive Logic and Inductive Logic. In the latter we were introduced to the terms Hypothesis, Theory, and Laws of Nature. I could never understand then or now, what something must possess for it to Qualify as Theory, or a Law of Nature. The latter expression seems to have superior ring to it. e.g. The Laws of Thermodynamics, Boyle’s Law, The Law of Gravity. If that be the case what for instance, does Quantum Theory, The Special Theory of Relativity, and the |General theory of Relativity, Have to do to qualify as a Law. I think the boundaries between the two are probably vague. The word Theory is sometimes introduced in philosophical discussion and I would say that there, its meaning is less strict than in science. For instance I have heard of Utilitarianism described as a theory, well if you can show me how it is falsifiable I would be interested to hear. I may be wrong, but I would say that philosophers in the main, discuss problems rather than theories.

    I never cease to be amazed by the number of scientists and philosophers both ancient and modern who had and have beliefs in the paranormal. I have met people who on the one hand are brilliant, yet on the other, have a weird belief and it is not always in respect of the paranormal. It would be quite improper here, to mention names in this connection other than perhaps to point out that the Philosopher C D Broad 1887-1971 was simultaneously president of the Aristotelian Society and The Society for Psychical Research.

  33. Andy,

    One of the many reasons I have been on the lookout for unicorns for many years. One of the reasons is not, however, transportation. Just thought I’d preempt any witty comments regarding unicorns and their riders. :)

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