Monday, September 12, 2011

The "end of philosophy"

I've just read a gloriously stupid discussion online where a number of science "fans"* were having a discussion about the status of "philosophy".

Except for one of the contestants, both the pro-philosophy and against-philosophy people had cringe-worthy arguments. The primary instigator seems to hold some kind of quasi-instrumentalist-positivist mishmash of a position, whereas some of the defenders seem to think that philosophy is nothing more than a bunch of techniques with which one can use to straighten up your thinking.

Perhaps the debate had something to do with Stephen Hawkings saying something about philosophy being dead? Maybe, maybe not ... but ...
What I think is most interesting about all of this this is that these people think that what they're saying would somehow be news to philosophers. In a discipline whose business is more or less to approach everything (everything ever) from a critical perspective you would think that at least someone would have thought "hey, what about philosophy? What is its status as a discipline?".

Of course they have. Duh.

In fact, to quote one of the books I read for an undergraduate course (entitled, if you can believe it, "After philosophy: end or transformation" by Baynes, Bohman, and McCarthy)

Agonizing over the "wherefore" and "whither", and even the "whether" of philosophy has been a staple of Western philosophical discourse since the time of Socrates and Plato. One might even argue, and with good reason, that periods in which self-doubt ran deepest were often periods of extraordinary philosophical creativity.

Following Baynes et al. one could take the "agonizing" of African philosophers around the mid to late 20th century about the status and possibility of a uniquely "African philosophy" to have been the very foundation that constituted a uniquely African tradition of philosophy.

Furthermore, the philosophers I know happen to be huge science fan boys and girls themselves, primarily because most philosophers are deeply committed to truth in some way or another - and science happens to be one of the most productive human activities in the way of truth production - what is there for philosophers not to like?

Well, perhaps there are some things. "Science", being a human endeavour, can on occasion set off down on paths that lead nowhere, and this is where philosophy comes in pretty handy sometimes.

Let's take an example that I'm interested in - namely, Artificial Intelligence (I'm sure there are examples in other disciplines, I'm just most familiar with this one). Back in the 1960's AI research was really kicking into high gear - researchers were convinced that within a few years they would have computer programs demonstrating human level intelligence in a variety of domains.

Then Hubert Dreyfus came along and spoiled all of the fun. Dreyfus, by the way, is a navel gazer who specialises in certain continental (gasp, horror) philosophers (Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Foucault, among others).
Anyway, Dreyfus noticed that the AI researchers were working with certain unstated philosophical assumptions that reached back to at least Descartes and which had been put to rest - as far as Dreyfus was concerned, anyway - by some of the people who he had studied.

I'm not quite sure how many people paid much attention to Dreyfus' critique - I know at least one very prominent AI researcher changed direction after taking in what Dreyfus had to say. Nonetheless, time has been kind to Dreyfus and not so kind to what has come to be known as "good old fashioned AI".

The point is, though, that scientists can learn from philosophers - at least some of the time. Philosophers certainly learn from science (even if there is a minority who may have anti-science tendencies). This is because, as I said above, both of the disciplines are pretty much dedicated to the truth - whatever that ends up meaning, and whatever means we use to get to that end.

* I'm not quite sure what else I can call this kind of person - but the SMBC pic I posted should help you recognise 'em when you see 'em