Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Philosophy: What's the Use?

Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting addresses a question in the New York Times section called The Stone that a lot of students ask: What's the use of philosophy? Here's part of what he says:
Almost every article that appears in The Stone provokes some comments from readers challenging the very idea that philosophy has anything relevant to say to non-philosophers. There are, in particular, complaints that philosophy is an irrelevant “ivory-tower” exercise, useless to any except those interested in logic-chopping for its own sake.

There is an important conception of philosophy that falls to this criticism. Associated especially with earlier modern philosophers, particularly René Descartes, this conception sees philosophy as the essential foundation of the beliefs that guide our everyday life. For example, I act as though there is a material world and other people who experience it as I do.

But how do I know that any of this is true? Couldn’t I just be dreaming of a world outside my thoughts? And, since (at best) I see only other human bodies, what reason do I have to think that there are any minds connected to those bodies? To answer these questions, it would seem that I need rigorous philosophical arguments for my existence and the existence of other thinking humans.

Of course, I don’t actually need any such arguments, if only because I have no practical alternative to believing that I and other people exist. As soon as we stop thinking weird philosophical thoughts, we immediately go back to believing what skeptical arguments seem to call into question. And rightly so, since, as David Hume pointed out, we are human beings before we are philosophers.
Gutting goes on to assert that we don't need arguments or evidence to believe much of what we do believe. We're perfectly justified and rational, for instance, to believe that we're not in the Matrix, or that we had cereal for breakfast this morning (if we remember that we did), or that I'm experiencing a toothache, or seeing blue, or that other people aren't mindless zombies, or that the world is more than five minutes old. These beliefs are "properly basic" and we're rational to hold them until someone can give us a good reason to think we're mistaken (what philosophers call a "defeater").
Even though basic beliefs on ethics, politics and religion do not require prior philosophical justification, they do need what we might call “intellectual maintenance,” which itself typically involves philosophical thinking. Religious believers, for example, are frequently troubled by the existence of horrendous evils in a world they hold was created by an all-good God. Some of their trouble may be emotional, requiring pastoral guidance. But religious commitment need not exclude a commitment to coherent thought. For instance, often enough believers want to know if their belief in God makes sense given the reality of evil. The philosophy of religion is full of discussions relevant to this question.

Similarly, you may be an atheist because you think all arguments for God’s existence are obviously fallacious. But if you encounter, say, a sophisticated version of the cosmological argument, or the design argument from fine-tuning, you may well need a clever philosopher to see if there’s anything wrong with it.

In addition to defending our basic beliefs against objections, we frequently need to clarify what our basic beliefs mean or logically entail. So, if I say I would never kill an innocent person, does that mean that I wouldn’t order the bombing of an enemy position if it might kill some civilians? Does a commitment to democratic elections require one to accept a fair election that puts an anti-democratic party into power? Answering such questions requires careful conceptual distinctions, for example, between direct and indirect results of actions, or between a morality of intrinsically wrong actions and a morality of consequences.
The "intellectual maintenance" Gutting talks about requires providing replies to defeaters that are adduced against one's beliefs, as well as supplying defeaters against the beliefs of others which are incompatible with our own. This may entail drawing out the conclusions of a belief to show that if followed logically the belief leads to conclusions that the person holding it would not want to embrace.

For example, Alvin Plantinga, whom Gutting mentions in his essay, has shown that there is indeed a conflict between science and religion, but it's not the conflict many suppose. The conflict, ironically enough, is between science and naturalism (the belief that nature is all there is). If, Plantinga argues, our cognitive faculties are indeed the product of a long evolutionary process then those faculties have evolved to enable us to survive, they have not evolved to enable us to apprehend truth.

Knowing what's true may sometimes enhance survival, but if so, it does so only coincidentally. Survival of one's genes can as easily be enhanced by false beliefs. Primitive reason might've led early hominids to believe, for example, that great heavenly rewards await those who sire dozens of children, or that it's right to kill off those rivals who belong to clans and tribes other than one's own. Both of these beliefs would lead to the survival and propagation of the cognitive abilities of those who hold them even though they're both false.

One only has a basis to trust the deliverances of one's thinking processes if one is a theist who believes that God gave us those processes and abilities to enable us to discover truth. The naturalist on the other hand, is in the awkward position of having to affirm that evolution causes those thinking processes to develop in order to make survival, not the discovery of truth, more likely.

Thus, if naturalism is true, the naturalist who believes in evolution (virtually all of them) has no basis for believing that his reason has reliably led him to his belief that naturalism is true. In other words, evolution is incompatible with the conviction that naturalism is true, but a theist who believes that God used evolution in order to produce cognitive faculties geared toward discovering truth has no problem reconciling his theism with evolution.