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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

We Need Philosophy, But Do We Need Philosophy PhDs?

Philosophy is a very good and necessary thing for any civilization. It is untrue that we do not need philosophy because we have scientists to guide us to the truth. For one thing, a large part of philosophy is ethics, and science is a morally neutral thing that gives no guidance in regard to ethics. For another thing, what is taught by scientists is often a mixture of fact, dogma, and speculations. In many cases the dogma consists of ideas that are not proven, but which have simply become popular in scientific communities. In such cases it is extremely useful to have a philosophical thinker around, regardless of whether such a person has any philosophy credentials. A philosophical thinker can act as a kind of referee or watchdog, alerting the public when scientists are making truth claims that they have not proven by observations or experiments.

Then there is the fact that our scientists are fond of saying that large classes of statements are forbidden to their kind, such as statements about the existence of the supernatural or some higher power. Since so many scientists are taking “hands off” attitudes towards such things, we need non-scientists such as philosophers to help us sort out the logic or lack of logic about truth claims in such an area, and to help sort out whether the evidence is sufficient to warrant beliefs about the supernatural.

The very idea that philosophy and science are completely separate things is erroneous, in the sense that scientists will often engage in philosophical activity as part of their jobs. For example, when a physicist starts speculating about a multiverse, he has strayed into metaphysics. It is appropriate at such times for a philosopher to comment on whether good metaphysics is going on, or poor metaphysics. And when scientists start spouting metaphysics, they sometimes spout the worst kind of metaphysics (violating the philosophical principle of Occam's Razor in the worst way). To give another example, when a scientist starts saying “This type of statement is forbidden to a scientist,” he has strayed outside of science itself into what is known as philosophy of science. At such point we need philosophers of science to give input on whether the scientist's statement is an appropriate rule.

So philosophy is very necessary indeed. And philosophy is still a good subject to be taught as an undergraduate major. For a large fraction of employers, a bachelor's degree is today largely a screening device, mainly serving the purpose of showing that a student is smart enough (and has sufficient writing and thinking skills) to pass a four-year program of study. There are countless employers who will hire any new college graduate with a good GPA, and many of them don't particularly care whether you have a degree in philosophy or French literature or history. Such employers often require employees to use skills they can only learn at their company.

But what about graduate programs in philosophy? Do we have any great need for philosophy PhDs? There is no tremendous need for people to have doctoral degrees in philosophy, and we could certainly get along with far fewer philosophy PhDs. Consider the literary output of a typical academic philosopher. Such a person will largely write for philosophy journals that almost no one reads. A typical philosophy journal will have its content behind a paywall, meaning there will be few Internet readers. And you probably won't be able to read the journal at your local library. 

You can get an idea of the small readership of philosophy papers by going to the website Philpapers.org, which allows you to see the abstracts of a vast number of philosophy papers. If you look at the full abstract for a paper, you will see a graph showing how many people have downloaded the paper. A typical result will be maybe two downloads a month.

The papers written in philosophy journals are typically papers about philosophy written by philosophers purely for the sake of other philosophers. Such papers are often very obscure and written in jargon that only other philosophers can understand. The cultural impact of such technical papers tends to be very slim. When philosophers start writing mainly for other philosophers, they tend to produce forgettable content that has little cultural impact.

There is a general reason why a university environment may be a poor environment for a philosopher. Part of the proper role of a philosopher is to criticize unwarranted or illogical claims from other people, regardless of their status in society. But a university can set up scientists as almost kind of local gods. The biologist or physicist may be a local celebrity at his university, enjoying fame, funding and a large building that may totally dwarf that of some philosopher at the university. This creates a situation in which the philosopher at such a university may have a strong tendency to kowtow to such an authority figure, and take his pronouncements as gospel truth. But such a philosopher may not be doing his job if he does that. Part of a philosopher's role is to expose poor logic and unwarranted claims of authority figures.

Will a philosopher at Central University be willing to criticize the unwarranted dogmatism or unjustified statements of Scientist Jones, when Central University is paying Scientist Jones $300,000 a year to secure the services of this well-known figure, and doing everything it can to build up his reputation and status? Probably not. A university environment may not be an ideal environment for a philosopher, just like the Pentagon may not be an ideal environment for an editorial writer analyzing the moral rectitude or logical sense of current US military policies.

There is no clear and obvious reason why we need to have philosophy PhDs. It may be that you can't do much microbiology unless you work at a university with fancy expensive laboratories, or a corporate lab with similar equipment. But anyone can write philosophical content even if he or she is not in a university. People who write philosophical content and place it on the Internet will probably get far more readers than those writing in philosophical journals.

A good deal of a philosophy curriculum involves studying the past works of philosophers. Such a study does not need to be perfect. It's very important that there be nuclear engineers who get things just exactly right, so that nuclear power plants can be built safely; and it's very important that there be geneticists who get things just exactly right, so that gene-splicing activities be done just right, and with minimum risk. But it isn't so terribly important that philosophy teachers get things just exactly 100% right when describing the teachings of past philosophers such as Plato, Kant, or Hegel. The main reason for studying such figures nowadays is perhaps to get a few ideas that someone might find useful in developing his or her own philosophical viewpoint. For such a purpose, it works just fine to have a fairly good knowledge of some past philosopher's ideas, rather than a crystal clear knowledge of that.

It seems that the philosophy departments of universities could serve their purpose well enough if all instruction in philosophy was done by only people with master's degrees rather than PhDs (and an accelerated master's degree would probably be sufficient for teaching philosophy at a university). Since the philosopher should be ever-ready to challenge the thinking of authorities in all fields (government officials, religion authorities, scientists and other philosophers), perhaps philosophers should be in no hurry to set themselves up as authorities with doctoral degrees in philosophy. 

The idea that you have to undergo many years of specialized study before you can call yourself a philosopher is misguided. It is the birthright of every human to philosophize, and any person who thinks deeply on any abstract philosophical topic may rightfully call himself a philosopher. 

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