Is Philosophy Useless?

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The 2008 financial crisis created a marked shift in the career prospects of many university students. Suddenly students’ enrolment in humanities majors, including philosophy, plummeted in favour of STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Something similar has also been seen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic; less available capital has resulted in numerous universities gutting humanities programs. Politicians and societal commentators will lump philosophy into their growing list of “useless degrees”. After all, what practical application does philosophy have in the real world? Has not science made philosophical inquiry obsolete anyway? Many do, indeed, like to debase philosophy in today’s age as being obsolete, inconsequential, and even pretentious, but is this truly a fair assessment of the discipline? What value does philosophy have today? Furthermore, in order to support either position one must, ironically, make a philosophical argument.

First, it would be helpful to define philosophy’s supposed vanquisher: science. Historically, the scientific tradition has actually evolved from philosophy. There existed a, now antiquated, branch referred to as natural philosophy which, as the name suggests, the natural physical world. Important natural philosophers included René Descartes, Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei who explored topics like anatomy, physics and astronomy. Science is often inaccurately portrayed by laymen as a body of knowledge or collection of facts about certain areas of the material universe. This portrayal, however, is not quite accurate. Science is not a body of knowledge; rather, it is a method of inquiry by which knowledge of the material universe is found. Scientific truths are also not necessarily dogmatic (i.e., irrefutable) as laws and theories technically could change if new and contrary evidence were found. While the process of scientific inquiry is very effective in providing correct information, the people conducting the experiments can draw erroneous conclusions as many scientific beliefs have been proven false throughout history. The scientific method begins with observation the observation of phenomena that produces a question, by which one creates a hypothesis. A valid scientific hypothesis must be both testable and falsifiable, which means that one should be able to prove it wrong through experimentation. From here, one conducts an experiment that either proves or disproves the original hypothesis. Perhaps the most important part is peer review, wherein other professionals review the experiment and results to determine their validity. Ideally afterwards, peer reviewers replicate the experiment and compare the results to those from the original. Meta-analyses can also be used: this is where preexisting scientific literature is used to analyse and compare data. This process is quite effective when it comes to discovering truths about the physical world, but our reality cannot be boiled down merely to the physical. This is where philosophy steps in.

Philosophy, like science, is also a method of inquiry to understand more about ourselves and the universe, although it is not confined exclusively to materiality (in fact, Idealism actually proposes that only ideas exist). Philosophy can be applied virtually to any subject and seeing through its lens can offer unlimited avenues of questioning and ways of approaching topics. Philosophical ideas also require evidence, rationality and valid logical reasoning. The process differs, however, in that these hypotheses are not really provable through experimentation. This allows room for more and different kinds of questions and theories since they are not limited to the constraints of science as the hypotheses do not have to be testable or even falsifiable. This, however, does not make philosophy less valid than science because philosophy often deals with questions that science, by its very nature, cannot answer. To suggest that the only truths to be known are those that are found through science suggests a very narrow understanding of reality. Ethical judgement of a given act or what constitutes a good life, for example, is not something that can be answered or tested through scientific methods. Philosophical inquiry is less linear and far more open-ended than the scientific method. Many different methods of discovering truth exist, such as meditation and contemplation, but there also exist more systematic methods. One process popularised by René Descartes is the Method of Doubt. In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes doubted virtually everything he knew that could possibly be doubted. Through rational, logical thinking, Descartes was able to gradually discover metaphysical truths about our universe, the first of which being that he definitely exists. Truth can be found in countless ways through philosophical inquiry. Perhaps one of the most beautiful things about it is that there is no one prescribed method. So long as one can rationally justify one’s beliefs, there is reason for serious consideration.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates

Both science and philosophy seek to find the true nature of things. Ideas found through philosophical thought can manifest through our beliefs and behaviour. These can be passed onto others and society as a whole to influence politics among other things. What is also important to note is that ideas do not exist in a vacuum; the way we understand things can have much broader implications than we think. These ideas can manifest through belief and subsequent action. Take, for example, John Locke’s ideas of epistemology. John Locke proposed the idea that all human beings at birth are blank slates with no innate knowledge. This thus means that humans are virtually formed completely by others in society. This idea later became adopted by others, including Karl Marx’s philosophy. Needless to say, Karl Marx’s writings had real-world consequences with numerous Communist uprisings across the world. When propagated throughout society, ideas can shape the culture and thus how society views reality and humanity’s place in the world. Philosophy is also something anyone can do. From the modest corner café among friends, to the ivory tower among intellectual elites. Philosophy happens everywhere and among everyone, even if they do not realise it.

Science and philosophy are both equally valid methods of inquiry, each dealing with different, but sometimes overlapping aspects of the universe; the physical and metaphysical respectively. The two disciplines have also a sort of symbiotic relationship. Scientific ethics, for example, were not nor could they have ever been formulated through scientific study; they had to be contemplated through philosophical thinking. Additionally, scientific findings can be interpreted through a philosophical lens and inform philosophical theories. Either way, it is not necessarily the practical applicability, usefulness in the real world or level of certainty something provides that truly matters. In the case of philosophy, it is the appreciation and love of wisdom merely for its own sake. Hence the name which, in Ancient Greek, translates to “love (philia) of wisdom (sophia)”. These are ultimately two methods of finding truth that can be applied to virtually any given subject.

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