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The following is my negative outlook on philosophy. I'm interested in learning the reasons I might be wrong, outcomes and examples I'm not aware of, lest I express this opinion in the future and seem foolish.

I struggle to see the practice of philosophy as a particularly productive one. It seems to me that any philosophical discussion is doomed to an eventual outcome of unclarity. After all, what is philosophy except the discussion of concepts deemed too complex to contemplate scientifically? And in such cases, how will we ever decide who is right and who is wrong? And if we can't decide that, how will we choose which argument to act on? Probably the side of whomever communicated the argument most elegantly and with the greatest charisma.

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  • I recently posed this opinion on Physics SE as a comment and after posting this I was recommended Chapter 6 of Philosophy′s Future: The Problem of Philosophical Progress by Blackford and I might just give it a read. Nevertheless, I'll leave this question here.
    – J.Todd
    Nov 12, 2021 at 20:02
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    Clarity is not a primary concern when it comes to generating and elaborating ideas, neither is deciding which is right or wrong. Science needs hypotheses, decision making needs options to choose from, even art needs conceptual frameworks to guide inspiration, and the quality of their output depends on the quality of available input. That input has to come from somewhere, and it is of higher quality when it comes from a systematic process of exploration and reflection than from unfiltered common lore. Philosophy provides options, testing them and deciding on which to act is done elsewhere.
    – Conifold
    Nov 12, 2021 at 20:45
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    If Philosophy is rigorized clear thinking, it is a kind of unique source of new concepts which always remains relevant. New concepts come from many sources such as science, traditions, mathematics, and clear analysis.
    – J Kusin
    Nov 12, 2021 at 21:01
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    I think calling philosophy "the discussion of concepts deemed too complex to contemplate scientifically" is a mischaracterization. It would be more accurate to say that philosophy deals with questions that aren't empirically testable (ie concepts), and often don't event have a correct answer.
    – gardenhead
    Nov 13, 2021 at 6:06
  • Note that practicing science is in significant part an exercise of philosophy. The Scientific Method is a philosophical tool -- first and foremost, a way to think about questions. This is, after all, why the terminal degree in scientific disciplines (among others) is called "doctor of philosophy" in English. Nov 13, 2021 at 16:10

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It's like saying what's the point of science if we just end up with more, greater mysteries.

Philosophy is a toolbox, not a destination. This is emphasised by postmodernism, see: Does postmodernism in art criticism collapse into relativism? What's its merit?

Philosophy fundamentally, is about wisdom, which I describe as our dilemma-solving faculty. See: Wisdom and John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises? We develop it through understanding how to act from the integrated centre of our concerns, which requires an active, renewed practice, & our whole philosophical toolbox applied to our own life. See: What is the difference between wisdom and knowledge?

You speak of cognitive biases, and what Harry Frankfurt calls bullshit - speech intended to pursuade without regard to truth. That was exactly what got Socrates fired-up, railing against it from the sophists, the professional debaters of his era, that would be advertisers and lobbyists now. Those tricks are what the toolbox is to help tackle.

I really like this article, about a pattern among philosophers of seeming to make a kind of loop of logic: Nāgārjuna, Nietzsche, and Rorty’s Strange Looping Trick. But the real message of that is, reject knowing all the answers as being the goal, and celebrate instead, having the best questions. And if we answer them, it is only a ladder to better questions; the purpose of a ladder is to use it, not to carry it around like a status symbol. Climbing higher can be about what we pick up, and what we learn to drop.

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    This has given me interesting food for thought, and some reading to do. Thanks.
    – J.Todd
    Nov 12, 2021 at 21:29
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Well, let's think about the choices one has if they do not engage in philosophy (to some extent or another)...

  • They can believe and do whatever someone else tells them to believe and do
  • They can think and act in a random, impulsive, inconsistent manner
  • They can think and act rebelliously, merely reacting to (and against) anything that crosses their field of view

Most people have moments of each of these conditions, sometimes to a greater extent or for a longer period, sometimes less. And each of these conditions carries with it its own pleasures an its own miseries. Does the person you follow lead you in a good direction? Do your impulsive behaviors disrupt your life or the lives of people around you? Does your reactionary state alienate you from the world?

Philosophy, in its simplest sense, is the effort to craft a simple, healthy, undistorted worldview, so that none of us need to go through the trials and torments that follow unphilosophical actors. The ability to think philosophically, honestly, is the thing that separates humans from animals; the less philosophical one is, the more one acts and thinks animalisticly, with all the consequent problems that entails. The kind of philosophy we read in books may seem arcane, but that's merely a qualitative difference; philosophical books aim for conscious, deliberate, perfectly consistent detail. It's just a more precise version of what people necessarily do every day to live comfortably in human society.

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what is philosophy except the discussion of concepts deemed too complex to contemplate scientifically?

Most modern science grew from the study of Natural Philosophy. These philosophers were discussing theories they had no way of proving, about atoms, elements and the laws of motion.

It wasn't until these things had been contemplated and discussed philosophically that it was possible for people to develop the vocabulary and concepts that made real science possible. An idea like 'we should verify our theories by repeatable experiments' is philosophy-of-science, not science itself.

Who knows what else might be born from philosophy in the future?

And in such cases, how will we ever decide who is right and who is wrong? And if we can't decide that, how will we choose which argument to act on? Probably the side of whomever communicated the argument most elegantly and with the greatest charisma.

We might debate the difference between good and evil without ever coming to a solid conclusion. One of us might say, a good deed is one that will lead to the best results. Another person could argue, we can't predict the future, so following the rules of society is a better to live.

We might never decide, but that doesn't mean all ideas are equal. If someone argues that the only good deed is setting fire to things, it is unlikely that we will act on that advice, irrespective of how eloquently they argue their case. Somehow we are all able to spot that this is a bad idea, even if we can't prove it.

There are bad ideas that we can reject instinctively. There are bad ideas that we will reject only after giving them sufficient examination to spot the flaws in them. And there are finely balanced ideas that we might never make any progress on. But even then it's still worth discussing such questions. At worst, we can learn to understand our opponent's viewpoint. At best, we might somehow unite around an idea like, "Let's abolish slavery."

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  • "Essentially the question is: are humans innately good or innately evil? But if you think about it, the question, framed in these terms, makes very little sense. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are purely human concepts. It would never occur to anyone to argue about whether a fish, or a tree, were good or evil, because ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are concepts humans made up in order to compare ourselves with one another. It follows that arguing about whether humans are fundamentally good or evil makes about as much sense as arguing about whether humans are fundamentally fat or thin." - Graeber & Wengrow
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 14, 2021 at 2:20
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After all, what is philosophy except the discussion of concepts deemed too complex to contemplate scientifically?

Complexity is far from the only reason that concepts cannot be contemplated scientifically. Most people would agree that "is murder wrong?" is not at all a complex or difficult question, but it is also not one that science can answer; it is not in the right category of question to be answered by the scientific method.

Here are a few more examples of questions which are, categorically, not answerable by science, regardless of the complexity of the concepts involved:

  • Is tea a kind of soup?
  • Does Microsoft, the company, exist?
  • Did Sherlock Holmes solve mysteries?
  • Why is murder wrong?

And to go meta:

  • In such cases, how will we ever decide who is right and who is wrong?
  • If we can't decide that, how will we choose which argument to act on?

You (very reasonably) reject charisma as a good answer to these questions, but I don't think you used the scientific method to falsify the proposition that charisma is a good way of deciding who is right or wrong; you decided that in a different way, and you may consider there is some value in investigating what non-scientific method leads you to that conclusion.

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  • Depending on the interpretation of the tea / soup question it may be answered by science, more specifically linguistics.
    – bdsl
    Nov 14, 2021 at 13:46
  • It's also possible to scientifically verify that Microsoft exists, unlike for instance Stark Industries.
    – bdsl
    Nov 14, 2021 at 13:49
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    @bdsl The scientific method can answer a question like "do people think tea is a kind of soup?", which is how a linguist would approach the issue - that is, they would say the meaning of the word "soup" is determined by usage, and they could survey how people use the word or how they think the word should be used. But I think it's pretty obvious that a question like "is X true?" is different to the question "do people think X is true?", and I would hope scientists in general know the difference and would not try to answer the former by methodology appropriate for the latter.
    – kaya3
    Nov 14, 2021 at 13:54
  • There are two main interpretations of the question is tea soup that I see - one is a question about the definition of 'soup', which is a linguistic question. Alternatively the questioner might be meaning a specific thing by 'soup' in which case the question is one about the properties of tea, which could be answered by examining tea and its place in the world.
    – bdsl
    Nov 14, 2021 at 13:57
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    ... thinking about this sort of thing, perhaps you might be interested in learning about what those criticisms are. In that case you would clearly be studying philosophy. On the other hand, whether or not you are interested in studying those criticisms, you are doing philosophy right here and right now, because you're proposing a philosophy and trying to make the case for it. So really the dichotomy isn't whether or not it is worth doing philosophy; you are doing philosophy either way, the question is whether you should take advantage of the efforts of other philosophers, or go it alone.
    – kaya3
    Nov 14, 2021 at 15:49
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tl;dr Philosophy's very important, and it guides the world! Though the term "philosophy" is often appropriated by folks who're moreso traditionalists reenacting historical practices than actual modern-day philosophers. Such so-called "philosophers" might be charitably characterized as misguided.


Two different types of Philosophy: modern polymaths vs. historical reenactors.

I'd suggest considering what "Philosophy" means.

Historically, Philosophy was simply the name for all fields of study; it included math, science, medicine, engineering, politics, business, and so forth. Only later, as the knowledge-pool grew, was there so much concern for particular disciplines (mathematicians, physicists, chemists, etc.).

Today there're two competing notions of Philosophy:

  1. The historical notion that includes everything; basically what polymaths study.

  2. The history of philosophy and some of its derivatives; basically, what Philosophy-majors study in college.

That first notion of Philosophy is of paramount importance; it underlies all fields, guiding human knowledge. For example:

  • Quantum-Computing is one offshoot, combining Quantum-Mechanics with Computer-Science and Engineering.

  • The whole metaverse thing is another offshoot, rewriting the direction for society itself as a function of computing, economics, politics, AI, and so forth.

This Philosophy is literally changing humanity.

However, the second notion of Philosophy is a very different thing. It's more historical, polite, and less informed. It's more of a lifestyle aesthetic than intellectual pursuit.


I struggle to see the practice of philosophy as a particularly productive one. It seems to me that any philosophical discussion is doomed to an eventual outcome of unclarity. After all, what is philosophy except the discussion of concepts deemed too complex to contemplate scientifically? And in such cases, how will we ever decide who is right and who is wrong? And if we can't decide that, how will we choose which argument to act on? Probably the side of whomever communicated the argument most elegantly and with the greatest charisma.

Lack of clarity? No right-vs.-wrong, but rather preference based on elegance and charisma? The egotistical notion that this is allowable because things are "too complex" for science?

Yeah, that's definitely the second notion of Philosophy. And, yeah, it's silly.


Where are modern-day philosophers?

If you check out different disciplines, e.g. Physics, then you might find a few different kinds of folks:

  • Some are more like technicians; they memorized what's in the textbooks and may have some rote-memorized information, though not a strong grasp of the underlying field.

  • Some might be more like narrowly-focused thinkers; they may actually understand their field, though not tend to look too far beyond it.

  • Others might be more general thinkers, even if they do their discipline as a career. These would be more modern-day philosophers.

Philosophers may not always out-perform technicians in their careers. For example, sometimes a researcher might get famous for a chance discovery, even if they might not have a particularly solid grasp on the conceptual underpinnings.

However, Philosophy itself is important. The broader perspectives that come from more general consideration help guide folks in shaping the future.

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