July 8, 2002

Don't knock philosophy's value

When I tell someone I am majoring in English and philosophy, they almost always get a sarcastic twinkle in their eye, a friendly curl to one side of their lips, and inevitably say, "That's cool, I really like philosophy. But don't you think it just goes around in circles?" Through their thinly veiled politeness, I can read the true nature of their thoughts: you're wasting your time, you fool—how can you possibly put up with all that nonsense that never leads anywhere (hence the part about the circles)?

This mode of thinking is a fundamental symptom of the blind faith that modern man places in the omnipotence of science and the technological hubris that permeates our culture as a result. Since philosophy never appears to reach a final result that can manifest itself as tangible proof, many people reject the field altogether as a playground for pointless ideas—nothing but a tool to practice writing, argumentation, and critical thinking. I will make an attempt to defend my chosen craft against these scientific naysayers, and establish philosophy and literature as vitally important endeavors to our existence as human beings.

If philosophy is scorned for moving in circles, then I must suppose the preferred alternative would be a linear progression that ends at some reachable point. Science appears to have a more cumulative and ultimately progressive history because it continually relies on past results to build new theories and achieve even more advanced technological or hypothetical creations. Before I address anything else, I want to argue that philosophy is not quite so circular, and science is not quite so linear.

What would it really mean to move in an intellectual circle? Supposing the analogy were literally applied to an individual, I assume that the phrase would refer to a thinker who constantly achieves the same result regardless of the amount of thought he or she applies over time. In terms of personal philosophy, this reasoning seems almost empirically nonsensical: no thirty-year-old thinks about the world in the same way as they did when they were twelve (or even if they do, it is in a more mature context).

Historically speaking, to say that each philosopher—or each epoch of philosophy—ultimately reaches the same results is absurd. Moreover, to believe that philosophy has, over time, made discoveries in a fashion somewhat similar to those made by science would also be utterly false. Every century in the past five hundred years has brought a myriad of new philosophical revelations improving on the ideas of the past. Kant's Critique of Pure Reason came a long in part because of Aristotle's Metaphysics, for instance.

But the critic will still argue that all these new formulations are simply increasingly complicated methods of the shuffling about of same old ideas, and that no philosopher has ever decisively come any closer to absolute truth than any other. The naïve critic would brashly argue that only science can deliver verifiable answers, and he would indignantly cross his arms in triumph. I concede that science and mathematics offer some solutions about the empirical world based on data collected concerning the laws of nature, but not a linear path to truth.

At the highest levels of physics and theoretical mathematics, ideas are just as nebulous and disputable as anything written by Kant or Hegel. Models are tested and proved, then tested again and retracted. Has anyone kept track of the number of times in this century scientists have determined that the universe will expand infinitely, then switched back to the Big Crunch theory, then switched back again? If they have, I've lost count. If that's not a circle, I don't know what is.

Yet again, that bothersome critic butts in and cries that what we don't know now, we will figure out in the future. I contest that appealing to the future is a slippery slope, and could equally assert that philosophy could find absolute truth in the future before science does. There's no telling that tomorrow I won't write a paper that proves everyone else wrong and me right—unlikely, but possible.

Many people also ignore the questions to which science can never give the answers. Even if the scientists of the world were able to finally explain everything in the universe (something like a unified theory of physics, an idea that many scientists believe cannot be formed or proven), they still could not answer this question: why? Why is everything the way it is and not different? Why is the speed of light 186,000 miles per second? It just is, they would have to say—observing the world itself could never yield any answers of this kind. But more importantly, no science, no matter how advanced, can guide the way we live our lives on daily basis. Scientific knowledge can significantly influence the way we relate to the world, but our conscious decision to act in certain ways according to this knowledge is philosophical, not scientific. What are protons and electrons when dealing with the decision to take one's mother off life support, after all?

Now the same critic looks at me fearfully and asks, "If science can't give us answers, then where do they come from? More importantly, what if there are no answers to these questions?" Such concerns get to the crux of people's resentment and distaste for philosophy and literature. To the first inquiry I reply that the each person must find these answers for themselves and not wait until some lab junkie tells them it's empirically justifiable. Our lives are our own, and we must fill them with meaning forged from our own hearts and minds. That is not to say that can be no objective truth, but an answer does not always have to be right to be important.

To the latter question, I assert that the human race must prepare itself for the real possibility that there could be no positive answers forthcoming for some questions. Some people living today have such reverence for the powers of science and the human intellect that they think there is no problem we can't solve. Finding out that there could be a thing we can't know is to find a truth just the same, and this is the purpose of philosophy. This concept is an essential property in the idea of truth—the truth might be that there is no truth.

In conclusion, I want to state that I don't have any contempt or disregard for science and its accomplishments. I believe scientific discoveries about the nature of things are vital to any philosophical investigation about the world. Science cannot take the place of philosophy however, and to be a human being is to think, and therefore to philosophize. The shape that would best characterize the movement of both science and philosophy would not be lines or circles but a combination of the two, ascending spirals that move gradually toward the shining force of truth.