Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Does philosophy bake bread?

There is an old saying that "Philosophy bakes no bread", implying that philosophy has no significant practical value, but I disagree, at least somewhat. I do agree that a large portion of what is called "philosophy", especially as practiced in modern times, is rather disjoint from progress in the real world, but a significant portion of philosophy, especially in a historical context is and has been extremely valuable, and eminently practical.

Early philosophy was really the precursor of a lot of modern science and logic. Basically, early philosophy studied and promoted the kind of disciplined and structured thought that is needed for virtually all modern disciplines, from mathematics, science, and engineering to law and our social and political systems.

Another way of saying this is that over time, every modern discipline and social system borrowed concepts, methods, and techniques from early philosophy. That is an understatement; every modern discipline and social system is based on the products of philosophy. Without the early works of Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato, and the enlightened efforts of Hume, Locke, and Rousseau, among countless other brilliant philosophers over the centuries, we would not have much of what we call modern in the modern world.

The simple fact is that all modern disciplines absorbed concepts from philosophy over the centuries so effectively that the concepts are considered part of those disciplines rather than being owned by the "discipline" called philosophy.

Critical thinking is, well, critical to analyzing the facts in any discipline. The world can be a complex and confusing place. Winnowing truth from fiction and relevance from irrelevance can be a very difficult proposition even on a good day. Technology can certainly help as a tool, but all tools must be used properly to be effective. Critical thinking is essential to guiding us to making practical and workable decisions from mushy and vague raw data.

A very pragmatic issue is that a lot of difficult questions are so poorly or vaguely phrased or framed so that it simply is not practical to even begin to answer the questions in a practical and workable manner until a deep and broad philosophical analysis can tell us what the questions are really all about. Answering inappropriate interpretations of questions can certainly lead to answers or solutions that do not meet the original needs that the questions may have been intended to address.

Another simple fact is that the adoption of the concepts of philosophy has been so thorough over the centuries that we have reached the stage where the rate of adoption of the remaining un-adopted concepts of philosophy is very slow or so slow that the average person simply cannot see it, even if they look very hard. But, as they say, appearances can be deceiving.

It is also true that a lot of "modern" philosophy has gotten so esoteric and so apparently disjoint from apparent reality that most people see philosophy as being completely disconnected from reality, even if that is not completely the case.

The truth is a bit more complex. Granted a lot of philosophy does appear disconnected from reality and maybe a lot of the time that is the case, but just as often it is simply that philosophy can run well ahead of the times. Politicians may not be ready to pass reasonable and workable laws permitting doctors to "pull the plug on granny" or define precisely how privacy and trust should function in online computer networks, but philosophers and leading edge experts in all disciplines can and do spend serious time discussing these kinds of issues seriously. They are, to put it simply, being philosophical. That is philosophy in action. That is philosophy baking bread. It may not be bread that the average person can eat today, but it is bread that the average person will be taking for granted somewhere down the road in coming years, decades, and centuries.

At the extreme, even the nature of existence itself is still an unsolved problem, with quantum mechanics, string theory, and "god particles" a matter of the kind of speculation and debate normally reserved exclusively by the kind of philosophers who supposedly do not bake bread.

In computer science there is an old saying that AI (Artificial intelligence) is just all of the things that we do not know how to do yet.

I would suggest a similar statement, that philosophy is where we hold preliminary discussions about the toughest unsolved problems of humanity or new ways of thinking that can be applied to those problems.

Philosophy is less concerned with what to do in life, but more about how to think about values and the processes of thought and action so that we can divine better systems of values and better techniques for thought and action that can then be applied in new and novel ways to solve problems in more innovative ways than were readily available to us in the past.

Put in more pragmatic terms, to be sure, philosophers do not directly bake break or tell people how to bake bread, but rather offer people new and novel approaches to how to think about new approaches to baking bread and how to leap ahead and think about meeting biological and social needs that bread was intended to address in the first place. Philosophy can guide us in forward thinking about ethical and social concerns related to global poverty and global health.

In short, there is still plenty of mileage to be gotten from philosophy, especially in leading edge research efforts of virtually all disciplines, especially in situations where significant uncertainty, lack of determinism, and ethical, social, and political concerns outstrip classical mechanistic approaches to problem solving.

So, yes, philosophers can certainly seem to be lost in the clouds, but a large part of that is because that is where some of the hardest problems facing humanity lie. So many of us remain so lost in the mundane concerns of daily life and the rote details of our disciplines that we continue to stumble through life precisely because we do not have the vantage point from the clouds that would enable us to distinguish the forest from the trees.

-- Jack Krupansky


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