Sunday 5 November 2017

Welcome to Philosophy! Make the most of your time here

[Adapted from introductory remarks to my first year Ethics course at Tilburg University]

If I have calculated correctly, mine is the very first class in your new academic careers in philosophy. This is a great privilege for me, but also a great responsibility. It is also an opportunity for me to say some very general things about academic philosophy, about what to expect in the next few years and how to make the most of your studies.

Most of you will have encountered philosophy before in some form. Perhaps you took a high school class. Perhaps, you've done some reading in your spare time or watched a lecture online by a famous philosopher like Slavoj Žižek or you hang out on the philosophy reddit. Whatever your experience, doing a whole degree in philosophy is going to be much bigger and stranger and harder. For example, right from the beginning you will be reading classic works written by expert philosophers for each other, and trying to make sense of their intricately argued claims about topics - such as the computational theory of mind - that you have never heard of before. And then reading equally clever counter-arguments by other philosophers.

Studying philosophy is exhilarating, but it can also seem overwhelming. So think of this as a kind of map to help you find your way, but also as a treasure map to motivate you to keep going when things get tough. 

I. What is philosophy?

There are many ways of answering this question. The one I'm going to tell you about - the one that seems to me to 'get it' the best - is that philosophy about solving problems. Specifically, philosophy is what humans do in the face of problems that are too difficult for anything else to work, either because we don't know what questions to ask in the first place, or because we don't know how to answer the ones we want to ask.

Many interesting problems have been essentially solved. Humans already know what kind of questions to ask, and have developed specialised techniques for working out the right answers to those questions. If you want to know whether there might be a planet orbiting a far away star, there are astronomers who can tell you how to answer that question. That goes for practical as well as theoretical problems. If you want to know how to hang wallpaper correctly, consult youtube. Humans have been asking some of these questions for so long that algorithms can even answer them automatically. You can find out when an eclipse will be at its maximum where you live, to the exact second, just by inputting your location

But there are still a whole lot of problems for which we don't have an established route to getting the right answer. For example, Are strawberries alive or dead? (If that seems like something only a child might ask, that is partly because most adults have been educated out of the habit of wondering about really difficult problems.) Another way of putting this is that we often don't even know the right questions to ask. For example What is the meaning of life? 

These problems are so difficult because we don't yet know what a good answer will look like: We don't know what it is that we want to know. That makes them second order problems, a problem  nested inside another problem. Our first problem is to figure out what kind of problem we are dealing with, what kind of questions we need to answer and how. We have to work out what we are looking for as we go along, building and experimenting with new methods and concepts and questions that may help us. And when we do this, we are doing philosophy.

In this light, 'What is philosophy?' is itself a philosophical question, because answering it means working out what kind of question we are trying to answer.

This idea of philosophy also explains why so many other disciplines - from physics to biology to economics to computing - have more or less explicit roots in philosophy. (Others have roots in more mundane concerns, such as calculating taxes or religious holidays.) The pattern is that when questions are interesting but no one knows how to answer them, one needs philosophers to find a way in. But once a philosopher has worked out some reliable system for getting good answers, philosophers lose interest and others move in. Philosophers are more interested in getting the questions right than in turning the handle on a machine that will give you the same kind of answer over and over again.

After doing this for a couple of thousand years many second order problems have been converted to first order problems and transferred to others, especially scientists. But there are still many important problems that scientists can't answer, especially around value and metaphysics. Some of these are very abstract and theoretical like 'Do we have free will?'; others are much more immediate and practical, such as 'What do we owe to the global poor?'. (Religions try, but they often cheat: 'God likes it that way' fills in for a lot of awkward gaps.) 

No doubt you already have beliefs about such classical philosophical issues as free will or right and wrong. These are embedded in how you think about things like the right punishment for a criminal you hear about in the news. So why aren't you already a philosopher? 

The answer is that you don't yet hold your beliefs in a philosophical way. At present they are just your opinions, something you have a right to as a free citizen but which deserve no more respect than anyone else's. Like a beginner at piano, you can play simple tunes, but you lack the full control of the instrument that years of study, interaction with other philosophers, and deliberative practise will give you. What will change as you become a trained philosopher, is that you will become much much skilled but also much more aware of what you are doing when you grapple with these second order problems - you'll be able to say exactly why it should be done this way and not another way.  You will also get better at distinguishing good philosophical reasoning from bad, in yourself and others.* 

II. How do we do Philosophy?
Philosophy depends on both creativity (judgement) and discipline (argument).

Judgement is especially important in determining how to approach a problem. It is closely related to what art critics do when trying to work out what kind of evaluative criteria should apply to a particular work. Judgement can be very creative and innovative since it might be that doing justice to your problem requires not just selecting from among existing concepts but adapting or combining them, or even coming up with a new idea of your own. The process goes somewhat like this. (For a more detailed account, see Samuel Fleischacker.)
  1. Break open the question. Step back from conventional assumptions. We cannot see something except by applying some concepts or other. But these can be a trap that prevent us from making any progress. Amateurs interested in philosophical topics often fall into such dead ends, such as the free will-determinism 'paradox'. With philosophical training you will be much better at escaping them.
  2. Try looking at the problem through the lens of alternative concepts. Do any of them help you ‘get’ the problem? Can you at least throw some bad ideas away?
  3. Adapt your concepts. Combine them with others. Look again.
  4. Are you making progress? Ask other people to look at the problem this way. Listen.
As an example of the fruitfulness of this process, read Steven Cave's essay on measuring free will. He escapes from one of the conventional assumptions of the free will-determinism debate - that the answer is yes or no. Instead he adopts a quantitative more-or-less approach that is inspired by evolutionary biology, rather than the fossilised Christian theology of the mainstream philosophical tradition. The result is refreshing and exciting, though surely not the last word.

Argument is about justification not discovery: disciplined, systematic thinking that goes step by step from one's evidence to one's claims. This is especially important in philosophy because, unlike natural scientists', our claims cannot be independently empirically tested. All we have to save us from wishful thinking is the quality of the argument itself, and the criticism of colleagues to keep us straight. (This is also why philosophers tend to be so aggressively critical in seminars, compared to scientists.)

Argumentation is very important when you are developing interesting ideas into a systematic theory, criticising a theory, or applying one to a specific case. For example, if you argue for a utilitarian defense of animal rights you will have to justify why animal suffering should matter enough to outweigh some human interests. For example, you might argue by analogy with racism, that ignoring the suffering of other animals is arbitrary and thus indefensible. (This is Peter Singer's approach in his famous Chapter 1 of Animal Liberation.

Neither judgement nor argument are unique to academic philosophy of course. Scientists for example don't just go around applying the same methodology over and over again, any more than a plumber only fixes one kind of leak. If you read the works of top scientists or business people or politicians you will often see wonderful examples of judgement in action and excellent and persuasive arguments. So these two skills are useful everywhere in life. But only in philosophy do you receive a proper training in them.

(A personal anecdote: I remember taking a university philosophy course for the first time. I was supposed to be studying science and was quite nervous about this strange subject with its 2,000 year old books and scruffily dressed professors. What I noticed was that my philosophy course seemed very hard and my grades weren't very impressive. But I also noticed that my grades for my other subjects shot up. Philosophy made everything else easier.)

III. What will Philosophy do for You?

Well firstly philosophy itself is wonderful! We have the biggest most exciting problems in the world to wonder at. Many of those problems are quite abstract and theoretical, like ‘What is consciousness?’ or ‘Is time travel possible?’ But there is also plenty of space to work on more 'practical' real world problems like ‘How does science work?’ or ‘Should human cloning be legal?’ (Most of what I do is on this practical side.) By the time you reach your thesis you will be making your own effort to grapple with a big problem that you find exciting. That will help you decide whether you want to carry on your training and make a career in philosophy.

Of course, not everyone wants to spend their life working on the kind of problems philosophers in universities get excited about. Don't worry. Philosophical training is useful whatever path you follow, whether a life of theoretical contemplation, or of intense political activism or business entrepreneurship. It turns out that solving difficult open-ended second-order problems is a very transferable skill. After studying philosophical problems, solving other problems becomes much easier.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”  (Albert Einstein - who studied philosophy in university as well as physics)
How is that? Studying philosophy trains perspective. In everyday life, whether business or personal, it is very easy to get pulled into a reactionary managerial approach to the problems that arise in any project. We run around putting out fires but don't stop to ask where they are coming from.

Philosophers know how to step back and consider the big picture, which is what you need to do to figure out what's really going on: what is the question we really need to answer. Then, philosophers are more creative at finding new ways to solve problems because we are used to having permission to think about non-conventional ideas. And yet philosophers are also highly disciplined thinkers, so our creative solutions have a good chance of actually working. We break down big problems into solvable pieces; work through the implications of our ideas systematically; and test our reasoning for wishful thinking.

Philosophers' attitudes to argument also turns out to be very useful. Humans are psychologically disposed to reason like lawyers: Start from the conclusion you like best and then select which bits of the evidence to deploy to make your story persuasive to others. In this context those who disagree with you are the enemy who stand in your way.

In contrast philosophers (like scientists) are driven by curiosity about the truth itself, which is sometimes fundamentally ambiguous rather than conveniently black and white. We want to understand how things really are, not just win an argument. For example, we tend to see disagreement as a productive resource to get to the best answer, rather than as a threat to group harmony or the status of leaders. Insofar as getting things right means making better decisions, thinking like a philosopher pays off.

IV. How Will You do Philosophy?

I want to finish with some specific, practical advice for you.

1. Practice
Philosophy is a skill not a gift. There isn’t a special philosophy gene that you either have or don't have! It is supposed to be hard. That doesn't mean it isn't for you, if you want it. You get better at philosophy by doing it, and you get better at enjoying it the more you do it.
  • Talk about it. Philosophy is a collective conversational enterprise. Test your ideas, arguments and reasoning skills with your class-mates and help them improve theirs. (Additional recommendations: hang out on the Philosophy Reddit; if you're in Europe join a student debating society)
  • Take writing assignments as an opportunity. Writing allows you to develop deep and careful arguments, which is how you tackle really difficult problems. Writing assignments may seem excruciating, but that is because they force you to do really hard philosophical work. If you take writing assignments seriously - start early, exchange with a classmate, revise at least once - you will be amazed at how much progress you will make.
2. Don’t fear failure
Firstly, philosophy is concerned with the most difficult problems of all. If you aren't failing most of the time then you aren't doing it right. The important thing is to learn from those failures. Secondly, philosophy isn't about piercing the veil and grasping at some divine transcendental perfection. It is made by flawed limited humans out of words and thoughts, well or badly but always imperfectly. Like a poem. Or a pot. Don't be intimidated by the beautiful texts you will be reading by the best philosophers of the last couple thousand years. They would not have achieved what they did if they were not willing to fail.

3. Read more
The shortcut to wisdom is studying what wise people have already learned. You need to add to your stock of concepts (philosophical tool kit) and exemplars of philosophical problem solving. So read everything you are assigned, and read further if you have time. (Additional recommendations: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and somewhat easier Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy give you an overview of where the major academic philosophy conversations have got to.)

4. Follow your curiosity
Learn which kinds of problems you find most exciting, and which philosophers you most want to be in conversation with. You won’t enjoy all branches of philosophy equally, but you won’t learn which you are most interested in until you try! Don't feel bound to heavy academic texts. There is a lot of well written, innovative and interesting public philosophy these days, such as on Aeon Magazine or  academics' personal blogs. I especially recommend listening to Philosophy Bites, which has short interviews with contemporary academic philosophers about their work.

*Edward Craig, author of the excellent Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, has a short interview with Philosophy Bites on this point. Here are some other philosophers giving their answers to 'What is Philosophy?' 

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution: Thomas R. Wells is a philosopher at at Tilburg University. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher's Beard.