Recently, I wrote about what I saw as a dangerous strain of anti-intellectualism that had arisen in the context of Donald Trump’s political ascension, among other things. But I think it’s also worthwhile considering other much milder forms of anti-intellectualism that sometimes come from unexpected sources—scientists, for example.
Most scientists blaze with enthusiasm when talking about the wonders they study—whether it’s the amazing discoveries of the past or the seemingly impenetrable mysteries that we are still grappling with today, hoping for a breakthrough. You can sense the passion and excitement that the scientist feels for her work and for the scientific endeavour itself, which is enough to inspire poetry. Read Unweaving the Rainbow or listen to Carl Sagan ponder our Pale Blue Dot and you’ll get my meaning.
Contrast that with the indifference and occasional hostility that some scientists feel toward philosophy. Despite having laid the groundwork for science, philosophy is, according to some, “useless”. Far from being a worthwhile academic endeavour, it deserves our contempt for pertinaciously contemplating pointless questions that have no real bearing on life—unlike science, which has tangibly improved our lives, in addition to profoundly enriching our understanding of the world. The overarching message: don’t bother with philosophy. Stick with science.
As someone interested in both, I wonder where this attitude comes from and whether it helps (or hinders) science and philosophy, which I’ve always seen as inseparable in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.
Underlying this attitude seems to be the impression that philosophers labour over questions that need not be pondered because they lack any obvious relevance to everyday life or the day-to-day work that scientists are engaged in. Why then do some people think that these questions are important and worth taking seriously?
Considering that science strives to advance our understanding of the world, as scientists we should care about philosophy because, in the course of pursuing knowledge, philosophical issues are simply unavoidable. The very act of seeking knowledge raises philosophical questions: what is the best way of figuring out truths about the world?; is there a universal scientific method?; how do we distinguish between science and pseudoscience? These questions have real social and political implications for a society that increasingly turns to science for guidance on matters of practical importance.
But I would go further and argue that in the course of living philosophical problems are inescapable. Such problems pertain not only to ways in which we gain an understanding of the world but, more broadly, to ways in which we live as human beings. This is why I think philosophy should be pursued for its own sake, regardless of how useful it is to the everyday work of the scientist. The questions it raises are important and interesting in their own right—questions about the ultimate nature of reality and our place in it, how we come to knowledge, what constitutes moral goodness, and so on.
Bumping into philosophical issues may be an inescapable fact of life, but is there any value to seriously contemplating such questions? Is it worth studying? As Bertrand Russell points out in the closing chapter of The Problems of Philosophy, the very act of philosophising is intellectually enriching, even if the answers we reach are not definitive.
Philosophy encourages a spirit of open-minded inquiry, freeing us to examine both radical new ideas and habitual ways of thinking. It teaches us intellectual humility and liberates us from “the tyranny of custom,” as Russell called it. It raises our guard against sophistries and other errors that would lead us astray. In doing so, philosophy equips its practitioners with critical thinking skills applicable to a wide variety of domains.
In an information-rich age replete with diverse claims clamouring for our attention and assent, in which many such claims are based on specious reasoning and promulgated by those eager to fool either us or themselves, what could be more valuable than that?