WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
Picking right up from where we left things last week, we look at the usefulness of philosophy and philosophers in today’s contemporary world and their relevance.
Philosophers devise imaginative thought experiments to justify their theories.
In much the same way that scientists devise physical experiments to test their hypotheses, philosophers devise thought experiments to test theirs.
A thought experiment is like a little story that puts a theoretical problem into context. It could be a possible scenario or a fanciful one; it doesn’t really matter.
For example, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato employed a thought experiment involving the mythical ring of Gyges to help him explore a problem in moral philosophy. The ring of Gyges is a ring that, when worn, renders its wearer invisible. In his seminal work, the Republic, a text written in the form of a dialogue between people with different views, one of the characters argues that anyone who possessed such a ring would invariably use it to commit crimes for their personal advantage. He concludes from this that people only act morally out of fear of punishment if they’re caught. We can see that, for his argument to succeed, it doesn’t matter whether the ring is real or not – it only matters how people would behave if it were real. Kyle Yun also explored this kind of philosophical problem of morality in his book, “Crime And Punishment”.
Other times, thought experiments are employed as counterexamples to philosophical theories. The contemporary philosopher of mind David Chalmers invented his idea of a philosophical zombie to disprove the theory that conscious experiences are identical to physical processes in the brain. A philosophical zombie is an exact carbon copy of a normal human being, from her outward behavior down to the flashing of her brain synapses. The only difference is that the zombie has no consciousness whatsoever. Chalmers argued that the fact that it’s possible to imagine a philosophical zombie shows that consciousness must be something additional to the physical processes of the brain.
Perhaps it seems like philosophers just make things up to support their arguments. After all, the imagination is purely the realm of fiction, right?
Well, no, not exactly. The imagination is a human faculty that enables us to navigate our environment, just as the senses do. We use our imaginations constantly, to help us solve problems, predict events and guide our actions. It comes in especially handy when real-world trial and error is too risky or costly.
For example, imagine you had to climb a cliff face without safety ropes. What would you do? You’d use your imagination to visualize and compare the various routes you could take, then find the safest one – you don’t exactly have a second chance, after all!
Thought experiments operate in the same way. They help us visualize and evaluate possible scenarios that justify or disprove philosophical theories. And sure, the imagination leads us astray sometimes. But so do all the senses.
Philosophers refine and strengthen their theories by defending them in debate.
Argumentation is a favorite pastime for philosophers. It’s considered a sign of success if a philosophical lecture breaks out into heated debate, and many lectures will pit two speakers against each other and have them duel it out as if in gladiatorial combat. From the outside, it might seem like philosophers have a perverse desire to have their work attacked and torn to shreds. But it’s all part of a timeworn process, going back to the very beginning of philosophy.
The combative element of philosophical debate is really just for the sake of performance, but it does serve a purpose: it helps to improve the theorist’s arguments. The process of defending their ideas from each other forces both parties to revise and modify their assumptions, buttressing their theories against their opponent’s attacks.
However, the combative element of debate renders philosophy vulnerable to the wiles of rhetoric. Strictly speaking, rhetoric is the art of argumentation. But in rhetoric, philosophers can be far more unscrupulous about how they “win” a debate. A person can be very persuasive if she only speaks confidently and eloquently, of course. But confidence and eloquence don’t always correlate with the truth.
Philosophers are wary of rhetoric wherever it emerges, so they take a few measures to mitigate its effects. They shy away from flowery language, for example, and they provide evidence and reasons for their claims whenever possible. They reserve their vehemence for their opponents’ ideas, and they never attack their opponent personally, unless the debate really goes awry.
The medieval game of obligationes typified this ideal of philosophical debate. In this game, two sides would argue over the truth of a statement. One side would argue that it’s true, the other that it’s false. Each side had to take turns, and the “moves” they could make were limited by a set of logical rules as strict and formal as the rules of chess. There would even be an umpire present. The idea behind the game was that if the rules are correct and each side follows them diligently, the winning side will always be the one on the side of the truth.
Modern philosophical debate isn’t quite this restrictive, but the spirit of the game lives on in the underlying etiquette that determines which “moves” are considered legitimate.
Sometimes, it’s useful to doubt assumptions usually taken for granted.
The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates inaugurated the western philosophical tradition with his famously paradoxical utterance, “All I know is that I know nothing.” Many centuries later, the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes would launch the modern philosophical tradition by casting into doubt all that we think we know, including the existence of reality itself.
So philosophers have a penchant for doubting. It’s something they do a lot, doubting that our beliefs are true, doubting that our arguments are valid and doubting that our perceptions are accurate. The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume even argued that we have no reason to be sure the sun will rise tomorrow.
The problem is that philosophers can cast such a wide net of doubt that they end up doubting even the most basic rules of logic that all rational debate relies upon.
For example, consider one law of classical logic: the law of self-identity. This law modestly claims that all things are identical to themselves. As uncontroversial as this claim may seem, there have been many attempts to deny it. One attempt supposes that since everything changes over time, things are not identical to themselves across time. You’re not identical to the person you were last year, because you’ve changed. Yet you’re the same person. Does that mean you’re both identical and not-identical to yourself? It’s a tricky question.
If we can’t trust the laws of logic, then we can’t reason about anything. We could only echo Socrates’ quip, “All I know is that I know nothing.”
The person who knows nothing is a stereotype that will plague philosophy forever.
The truth is that this doesn’t reflect the state of philosophy today. Philosophers are generally pretty confident about the logic they build their arguments on, even if they question them from time to time. Ultimately, philosophy justifies its logical laws the same way that physics justifies its physical laws – not by finding irrefutable proof, but by accepting that, for the time being, they seem to work pretty well. They’re functional, they help us solve problems and this is justification in itself.
So philosophers don’t cast doubt just to be difficult, like a child that won’t stop asking, “But why?” Philosophers doubt because sometimes it’s useful to doubt. Doubt motivates us to look for reasons and evidence. In this way, philosophy isn’t any different from the natural sciences.
Next post, we explore how philosophy, like every other sciences evolve.
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Have a fruitful day!
Olusola Bodunrin is a social commentator with a passion for gathering facts on social issues. He is writer, businessman, blogger, and wardrobe consultant. He is a graduate of Philosophy from the University of Ado-Ekiti. He anchors – ‘What You Should Know’ on SHEFFA.
‘What You Should Know’ is a column that offers to educate and enlighten the public on general falsehood and myths.