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On the nature of philosophy and its role in making the world a better place

In today’s blog we chat with Dr. David Livingstone Smith, PhD at the University of London, and Professor of philosophy at the University of New England on the relation between philosophy, truth, and culture.

David G: As I understand, you hold philosophy not to be a way of seeking answers but a method for formulating better questions. Is this correct?

David S: I think that philosophy does several things. It can certainly help us ask better questions—to “think outside the box.” Philosophers are also very good at identifying and questioning covert assumptions. Unlike other disciplines, philosophy does not have a proprietary domain. There is no one slice of reality that it is “about.” It is perfectly general (in this respect, it is similar to mathematics). Because of this, philosophers are good at interdisciplinary thinking. They are able to connect the dots between ideas in disparate disciplines and domains. Another aspect of philosophy is to probe and evaluate inferences in science, politics, or any other area one might name. With regard to the role of philosophy in seeking answers, my view is that philosophy is very good at finding answers, but is unable to determine which if any of these answers is correct. I often tell my students that it’s not right to say that philosophy doesn’t give us answers. Rather, it gives us too many answers.

David G: Little appeal is made to philosophy in physics today. Have the better questions already been formulated, or might it be that the lack of progress over the last half century is due to the grounding of research in the wrong questions? For example, there is a tendency to search for theories based on some abstract notion of beauty. If Nature is unwedded to our notions of beauty, our search for the most beautiful theory is wrongheaded and we need a better question.

David S: I doubt that all the better questions have been answered. It is even clear to me, as an outsider, that physics is far from complete. It would be presumptuous of me to suggest that research has focused on the wrong questions, although that is certainly possible too. There are other reasons that might explain the lack of progress. One might be that physicists have come up against the wall of human cognitive limitation. Perhaps we can no more grasp the fundamental nature of the world than a goldfish can grasp calculus. The seeming bizarreness of much of microphysics might be an artefact of the lack of fit between how the world really is and the inherent limitations of the human intellect. More optimistically, perhaps philosophical training would help grease the wheels of progress. During the golden age of physics, physicists were—like all scientists—philosophically educated. The intellectual discipline and imaginative scope that the study of philosophy cultivates fed into their scientific work. Nowadays, philosophy is marginalized in the academy and in the culture at large, and is generally seen as a useless ornament of a liberal arts education that is grossly inferior to, and irrelevant to, the truly important STEM disciplines. Perhaps that will one day change, and scientists will come to do better science in virtue of having some grounding in philosophy.

David G: More generally, can one see an improvement in questions about truth over the last millennia?

David S: When you say “about truth” I take it that you mean “about what is true” rather than “about what truth is.” Yes, we have made immense progress, thanks mainly to the development of scientific methodologies. This, by the way, points to another characteristic of philosophy. Philosophers wrestle with problems that we do not have methods for solving—and for which we often cannot even imagine what such methods would look like. Once a problem or a question becomes methodologically tractable, it stops being a philosophical question and becomes a scientific one. Consequentially, we philosophers are stuck with all of the really hard riddles that nobody knows how to solve.

David G: Our evolutionary past has supplied us with tools that are ill suited for our highly interconnected modern world. I’m thinking, in particular, about our instinct to produce hierarchies and the extremes this can lead to if left unchecked, as you have written about. Might we overcome, or get behind, these instincts by creating a culture in which questions about the way to make the world a better place take center stage? Might philosophy, as you view it, therefore, become essential in getting us to the future society where all can thrive?

David S: I think that we need to be cautious about laying too much of human behavior at the door of evolution. Despite the hype, we know extraordinarily little about the role that natural selection has played in shaping the particulars of human behavior. But even if it is the case that many of our unsavory dispositions are the upshot of evolutionary contingencies, this does not imply that they cannot be changed. We Homo sapiens are able to engineer human nature through culture. So yes, we can do much better, and I have no doubt that philosophy can play a vital role. But that is unlikely to happen unless philosophy is accorded the centrality that it deserves in the academy and in the wider culture, and until philosophers abandon their love affair with esoterica and rise to the challenge shaping a better world.

David G: Thank you Professor!

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