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The more I learn about philosophy, the more it seems that there is no correct answer to literally anything. Of course, certain things are true and false. But proving that they are seems an arduous task and the reasoning for them ultimately seems to come down to feeling and instinct.

Is the external world real? How should one view the subject of probability and interpret it? How should one determine whether it’s justifiable to believe in something? How does one know if something is true? When should you doubt the currently accepted status quo explanation? The answers, even if well reasoned, must have a foundational axiom behind them. But these axioms seem to have no basis except…just pure instinct.

For example, an evidentialist believes that one should believe in X only if one has enough evidence in X. But this begs the question of how much evidence is enough and what constitutes as enough? This clearly cannot be arrived at without debate.

Given how many positions come down to feeling or instinct, how can one show that a person who’s well versed in philosophy for a decade has better opinions than one who doesn’t? Better yet, why should I trust a philosopher on any matter more than a non philosopher? In other sciences, even if they are rooted in philosophy, atleast you can test certain things. Clearly, I can trust a doctor about my health more than a layperson because I can see and test the difference. I understand that it is hard to make this point without assuming the value in empiricism but at the end of the day, we can observe without debate that a doctor is more likely to cure you than a baby for example.

How can one say the same about philosophers? If not, to put it crudely, why even bother reading any philosopher? What makes Kant, Hume, or Socrates’s opinion more valid than mine? Just because certain people can write books worth thousands of pages describing and rationalizing an instinct doesn’t mean that instinct itself is more valid than mine, does it? So where does that leave us?

It seems that any answer would involve assumptions you can’t definitively prove and am curious to see other people’s’ thoughts.

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  • I love mathematics. 🙂 Mar 12, 2023 at 4:28
  • You have a bad case of analysis paralysis. I feel your pain. A long hike in the woods always helped me.
    – user64314
    Mar 12, 2023 at 14:44
  • What is a philosopher exactly? Who gets the badge and how is excluded? Who does the inclusion or exclusion in the category "philosopher"?
    – Frank
    Mar 12, 2023 at 15:57
  • Your first sentence points to a lot of meaninglessness in philosophical generalities I would say. Probably that's why scientific types got tired of it and started focusing on narrower claims that they could study with data and that would actually advance our knowledge of the world ...
    – Frank
    Mar 12, 2023 at 15:59
  • And you have a point that many philosophers are not worth reading anymore. Some have a couple of ideas that are still interesting, but there is a lot of historical verbiage that is not really worthwhile. Note also, that if you are talking about "opinion", no opinion is more valid than another one. That's why we need to leave opinion behind to establish knowledge.
    – Frank
    Mar 12, 2023 at 16:02

6 Answers 6

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I will answer with the perspective of an academically trained person.

What do people who study philosophy learn? The main objectives of the training are

  • knowing historical arguments
  • being able to analyse, summarise, and paraphrase arguments of others
  • being able to see and discuss strengths and weaknesses of arguments
  • being able to build up an argument of your own and anticipate and counter possible objections

This is what people learn primarily doing a philosophy degree.

These points all help a great deal when your task is discussing and reasoning. If your task is to find the ultimate answer, they may not be all that helpful. But that is not the fault of the philosopher, it is the fault of the person who still thinks there are ultimate answers.

Generally, there is no guarantee a philosopher will be better at reasoning. The training will certainly improve their individual potential significantly though because you learn and practise skills that are helpful in reasoning. These skills can be acquired outside of a philosophy training as well, though.

A junior lecturer once told me the following:

You know what studying philosophy taught me first and foremost? Humbleness. Since I was humbled time and again, thinking I had an idea oh-so-clever, only to find out that people much cleverer than me had the same idea and discarded it with great arguments, oftentimes hundreds of years ago.

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  • +1 Invoking humilty.
    – J D
    Mar 13, 2023 at 21:18
  • I agree. I would say in particular that (good) philosophers are able to see both sides of every argument and not get dogmatic. And they are good at exposing, identifying and examining hidden presuppositions that others miss.
    – Bumble
    Mar 13, 2023 at 21:24
  • Why introducing humbleness? That implies that in fact, philosophers are better, but they can't say it due to humbleness. In addition, it's not nice to say "I'm humble".
    – RodolfoAP
    Mar 14, 2023 at 11:28
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    @RodolfoAP You completely miss the point of the quote. It is to make clear that academic training and study of the literature confronts you with your own level of ability compared to all-time greats and with their way of arguing. Also, getting humbled (not the same as being humble) makes you more open and sensitive to possible shortcomings in your own argumentation and more open to the arguments of others. Most people are bad at reasoning not because they can't be better but because they think they already thought everything through and dismiss things they should think through first.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 14, 2023 at 12:24
  • +1 wonderful quote. The same applies to my feelings towards science and engineering.
    – user64314
    Mar 14, 2023 at 13:54
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In general, one should avoid trusting titles like "philosopher" or "scientist" as being better reasoners. This is a classic propaganda tool where "experts" (PhDs) basically interpret the information for you so you don't have to think too hard. Philosophy and science offer methodologies and perspectives to arrive at "truths" and powerful tools they are, but these methodologies take time and training to learn and are used by people who by nature are flawed. It should not matter who delivers a truth. It should matter that all people are provided with the tools necessary to arrive at the truth so an "expert" interpretation isn't needed.

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  • So not "qualified" to answer this, but here goes.

You can probably trust a formally educated philosopher more than a layperson with certain types of questions...like "What did Socrates believe and what distinguishes him from Plato?" or "What's the logic fallacy in this argument that I'm just not seeing?" But when it comes to questions regarding what we "should" do, there is more opportunity for personal bias/prejudice/interest to appear. All the reason in the world cannot bridge the gap between is and ought, right? So in that respect, you might be right about your opinion being just as valid as anyone else's.

I don't think that means there is no value in reading about other people's ideas though. If nothing else, it can be a way of stimulating your own creativity and critical thinking, maybe it's just fun...etc. It can certainly make it harder to say "Yes" or "No" to things because the more you understand, it seems, the less black and white things become.

Also, to your point about truth...according to Nietzsche (the only philosopher I am really familiar with), philosophy is not a quest for truth, but a way of expressing one’s will to power and creating one’s own values and meanings. All truth that we as humans deal in from day to day is only metaphor (See: On Truth and Lies), and "ideal truth", if there is such a thing, is not obtainable.

So without a solid ground to stand on, who says what is right or wrong? I doubt there is any definitively provable and assumption-free thing you can point to that would prove one person is better qualified to navigate such a landscape. It might just be something we have to agree on or fight for. I think philosophers can play a big role though in influencing the outcome of that. Sam Harris (say what you will) has had a pretty big impact, I would say.

"Is the external world real?"

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  • +1 And Nietzsche seems right that there is a competition of worldviews whose adherents are not disputing logical truth so much as normative preference for elements in the worldview. The more militant and dogmatic the defense, the more naked and aggresive the will to power.
    – J D
    Mar 13, 2023 at 22:32
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Thinking is a skill, not an innate disposition. People who hone that skill reason better than those who don't, which is no different than saying soldiers and martial artists fight better than couch potatoes. One has to master the skills and tools of a field before one can use them correctly; such is life.

Saying that reason boils down to instinct and feelings is like saying that fighting boils down to the spasmodic muscle movements we see in infants. That is technically true, but thoroughly misleading. Fighting means honing, organizing, and structuring those spasmodic movements; thinking means honing, organizing, and structuring those base instincts and feelings. If one doesn't do that, one cannot think (or fight) better than an infant.

The issue here is mostly a matter of ego. We are (mostly) willing to recognize that doctors know more about illness than we do, so we take their word. We are willing to recognize that soldiers are better fighters than we are, so we respect them for their service. But very few people are willing to recognize that another person thinks better — that's an affront to self-esteem — and so philosophers and others who have honed that skill are generally looked down upon. Again, such is life.

Every empirical science has two phases: an 'artistic' phase in which scientists compose new theories and wrestle with fundamental questions, and an 'artisanal' phase where established knowledge is used to produce things in the world. That first phase is fundamentally philosophy, but is reserved for people at the top of the field. Most people in the sciences are artisans plying a trade. They are bright, and skilled at their work, but by no means great thinkers.

Philosophy proper also has 'artistic' and 'artisanal' phases, but philosophy's 'artisanal' phase is comprised of things like social activism, psychology and self-development, applied morality, etc., all of which tend to make people grumpy. I mean, it's one thing for a doctor to say: "Eat fewer hamburgers and you'll live longer." We may not like it, but we can grudgingly accept the truth of it. But it's another thing entirely for a philosopher to say: "Do only that which you would will as a universal law." That is confusing, mentally exhausting, and seriously limiting; sometimes we really want to do things to others that we would never allow to be done to ourselves, and it's infuriating to have some high-minded busy-body tell us we shouldn't.

That grumpiness doesn't mean the philosopher isn't right, or that she doesn't think better than us. It merely means that we don't buy into the philosopher's authority the way we buy into the authority of (say) a medical doctor. Applied philosophy is annoying and inconvenient, and many people would rather dispose of the whole field.

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  • i probably think everyone is over emphasising the difference between a 1st year undergraduate (white belt) and someone at the top of their profession (grandmaster). there's nothing stopping an intelligent person being right and producing work to a reasonable standard. they won't have the same knowledge and are unlikely to have the same kind of creative potential as their professors, but casting philosophy as combat seems wrong, for a number of reasons
    – user65174
    Mar 14, 2023 at 20:36
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    @zero: Well, I was making an analogy, not an equivalence. The point is that development of skill takes time and effort, whether it's a physical skill (like combat) or a mental skill (like reasoning). But that being said, any power can be used peacefully or violently. Non-trivial exposure to social media should teach that some people use reasoning like daggers, with great glee in the slaughter. The philosophically-minded tend to be more idealistic, and thus less inclined to personal brutality, but don't let that fool you. Mar 15, 2023 at 1:18
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Your question contains more than a dozen questions. I shall address what seems to be common to a number of them. Philosophy has much in common with many other fields of study, and indeed with other endeavours such as the arts. Those who practice in the field vary enormously in terms of ability, focus, style and so on. You cannot assume that all practitioners are cast from the same mould, with the same approach and level of ability, so you have to pick and choose. I prefer thinkers who articulate their thoughts in unambiguous, non-technical language, who demonstrate common sense, pragmatism and so on, who seem to be open-minded and who give me new insights. So is all philosophical writing worth reading? No- no more than all fiction is worth reading.

That said, I would like to share an anecdote with you. Before I published my first novel, I used to devote much of my spare time to 'beta reading'. If you aren't familiar with the term (and I wasn't) it means reading drafts of manuscripts intended for publication and providing critical feedback to the authors. I read tens of novels, some promising and some atrocious. It was a hugely beneficial experience for me, because it forced me to think more clearly about the faults in the works I was reading, so that I could provide meaningful feedback. I became a much better judge of style as a consequence. I suspect that reading poorly constructed philosophical arguments might have a similar benefit.

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This is an empirical question. That means, one would have to devise a study that tested reasoning of philosophers and non-philosophers to answer it. We can think of how this might go:

  1. A sample of 1,000 philosophers are chosen at random using some methodology such as listed professors at universities.
  2. A sample of 1,000 non-philosophers are chosen at random from the general population.
  3. The LSAT, or some similar psychometric, is administered to test the abilities to reason.
  4. The results are analyzed.

Then, and only then with the full force of a professionally devised and administered test could one be relatively certain. That being said, if you compare professional philosophers against the general public in a randomized way, I suspect professional philosophers (let's say with a masters degree or higher) have far more education in reasoning and language use than the average person. In fact, the people who design and administer the LSAT keep track of performance of by major. Philosophers are near the top consistently year after year, though never perform as well as mathematicians whose bread and butter is certainly mathematical logic.

Would the same be true of the MAT? The GMAT? In fact, what does it mean to be better at reasoning? Stephen Toulmin made a very strong case that informal reasoning is domain-specific, so does it even make sense to consider reasoning in the abstract or in absence of a domain?

If I had to put my money on a bet of who would produce better reasoning, a professional epistemologist or my hairdresser, I know where my wager would lie. But, non-philosopher is a pretty broad term that encompasses lawyers, mathematicians, and engineers, all of whom tend to be pretty bright. Ultimately, the devil is in the details on this sort of question.

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  • I don't know why this answer was downvoted- it seems very reasonable to me. Mar 13, 2023 at 21:29

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