If my experience as an undergraduate taught me one thing, it’s that if there were a competition for “most useless major” philosophy would probably take first place. Although our compatriots in the Humanities and Fine Arts departments also often bear condescension and scorn from the so-called “useful” majors, philosophy sometimes seem to warrant a special degree of dismissal in popular consciousness. The reasons for this dismissal are complex and due to a variety of factors; some of them are philosophers’ own faults, while others are, in my judgment, the result of public misunderstanding and shifting cultural norms. Whatever the underlying reasons for this disdain for philosophy though, it is something that I have encountered in various contexts throughout my own education; it ranges from the snarky tone implicit in the questions that all philosophy majors must at one time or another answer (“what are you going to do with that,” “isn’t that all just a matter of opinion?” etc.) to explicit comments like Stephen Hawking’s repeated quips in his recently released The Grand Design to the effect that philosophy has fallen behind the times and it is physics that now carries the torch of enlightenment into the darker recesses of human ignorance. But this dismissal is honestly wrong-headed, and I mean that not as a philosophy major attempting to justify his course of study as legitimate, but simply as another human being living the so-called “human experience.” Now, I can certainly concede that if you are stuck on a deserted island and wondering how to survive, philosophy will not be the first thing on your mind, and moreover philosophy has certainly not given us many thrilling technological advances that allow us to travel faster or farther or cure previously incurable ailments.

However, I do believe that philosophy is important, particularly in this day and age, for several reasons; insofar as different sciences, as well as our culture, our upbringing, our religion (or lack thereof) and our life experience all provide us with different worldviews and the only way to systematically integrate them or navigate them is through philosophical thinking, and if for no other reason than philosophy is simply unavoidable, whether an apathetic or uninterested college student (or anyone else for that matter) wishes for it to be or not. One of the greatest myths I have seen propogated in the modern university (and everywhere else in fact, because what I’m describing is also the almost universally condemned maxim of ‘political correctness’ albeit in another form) is the implicit idea that one can “avoid” doing philosophy, as if the field were its own specialization that people could simply opt out of. In fact, much like health insurance, this is no option at all; one cannot opt out of doing philosophy, one merely chooses to do either good, consciously thought-out philosophy or bad philosophy (bad because philosophy of this sort will be unconscious and unsystematic, and pretty much anything you’re doing without having ever given it any thought whatsoever, aside perhaps from sleeping, is bound to be less than exemplary), but that they are doing philosophy there is no doubt. All of these assertions will be defended in the essay to follow.

Not all people are interested in all of philosophy- of that there can be no doubt, and I hope the reader trusts that I’m sane enough to know this. But for a college student, some degree of philosophical thinking is going to be in order for even the least reflective person, if only because so much of what we encounter in college, or in pretty much all of life, tells us such different things about who we are and the Way the World is. One of the most disappointing parts of my college experience was realizing after several semesters just how much researchers in different fields disregarded or openly dismissed as sophistry or hokum the hard work and systematic theoretical frameworks of other fields. An excellent example of this tendency has come, for me, from taking both psychology and sociology classes; the former often accounts for (to take only one example) mental disorders such as depression, schizophrenia or ADHD in terms of irregular brain chemistry or improper neural connections and explains how these disorders can be treated through therapy combined with certain drugs to alter the chemical activity of the brain. The sociological view I have been exposed to, on the other hand, accounts for mental disorders in terms of ‘labeling’ and deviation from social norms, and has often cited studies showing how little therapeutic effect certain drugs have over a placebo. The bizarre part of being exposed to these two viewpoints was having a sociology professor literally say “there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that these drugs improve the standard of living of people with depression” after having a psychology professor show us a picture of two brains, one from a depressed person and one from a healthy person, and say “look, see? There’s the difference in the degree of activity as shown by the different coloring.” The implicit (though sometimes explicit) tone behind these different presentations of one phenomenon is that “those other guys” are wrong and we shouldn’t take what they say too seriously, because they aren’t being “reasonable.” From experiences such as this it becomes easy to see why the most cynical postmodern “anti-foundationalists” deny that we really know anything at all, or why they seem to seriously believe that literally any explanation or perspective on a certain phenomenon is wholly equal to any other, and while this obviously represents vagueness to the point of shamelessly lying and purveying falsehood (standard procedure for postmodernists) such depressing cynicism sometimes becomes pretty understandable.

It is here that philosophy becomes important, because philosophy is, in some sense, the job of uniting different theoretical outlooks into a single worldview, if only because philosophy has perhaps the broadest theoretical outlook of all, which is only to start with the assumption that our reasoning faculties accurately reflect the truth (without this assumption any sort of rational or intellectual discussion becomes absolutely meaningless). Assuming this, it then goes on to explore the relationship between different frameworks according to three central questions; “what am I,” “what do I know” and “what should I do”? The application of these questions to different scientific frameworks, or frameworks inherited from culture, religion etc. is what allows one to approach an overall systematic worldview, one that does not contain internal contradictions. An example of the application of this is what seems to be the stereotype questions that everyone I meet seems to think philosophers are concerned to answer; “how do I know I’m awake and not dreaming,” “how do I know your red isn’t my blue,” “how do I know that other people, or other minds even exist?” etc. Many laypeople seem to have the misconception that philosophers are deeply concerned with answers to these questions, but in all these cases the real point of asking them is not to seriously wonder if I’m the only person that exists, or if other people in fact see colors completely differently from me etc. Instead, the point of these questions is that they illustrate broader considerations about different ways of thinking, both philosophically and more generally. To use a rather abridged but easy example, anyone who subscribes to the standard model in contemporary physics, according to which the fundamental nature of the universe is of a fantastically large number of subatomic particles (presumably with one that is ultimately the most fundamental, though what that particle is may remain as of yet undetermined) as well as the commonsense idea inherited from modern science that when it comes down to it, the mind=the brain, ought to, all things being equal, dismiss the possibility that when I see red you see green or visa versa. The reason for this is that if all there is, if all that is real is a vast swarm of tiny particles (and energy which is, apparently, the same thing in another form) and all we are is a particular arrangement of these tiny particles, and furthermore the process of color perception (that is, the experience of seeing color) is, according to our observations, identical between two individuals, it follows that those individuals must be having the same experience, leaving no room for doubts about whether one person’s experience of redness is in fact radically different from another’s. Of course, a rejoinder to all this is to ask how we can be certain that another person is having exactly the same experience and I guarantee a lively debate could explode over this rather arcane subject. But it nevertheless illustrates the way in which philosophical thinking works; rather like performing a scientific experiment in which we apply a certain force or effect to a given object and then report what it does, philosophical thinking subjects a question to a variety of different kinds of answers and looks at the impact those different answers have on our overall worldviews.

Of course, philosophy is very broad and many parts of it concern questions that do not fit so neatly into this sort of experimental framework- philosophy blends into scientific, practical and literary questions as well, or perhaps more accurately those questions blend into philosophy.  But I can see a stubborn anti-philosophy advocate insisting that we have no real need to do all this thinking, all this worldview-building and speculation and whatnot. If we want, such an advocate might argue, we can still just let it all go and decide to just go on living our lives. But as I said in the introduction this is not the case, because you’ve already done philosophy, even if you didn’t know it; for instance when you were fourteen years old and you were trying to convince your parents that you were mature and responsible enough to be allowed to go out late with your friends you were engaging in philosophy. This ought to be obvious at this point from the fact that you were talking about how you were mature, meaning that you had attained a certain degree of practical knowledge (but what is ‘ knowledge,’ let alone ‘practical knowledge?’) and that this knowledge meant it was justifiable for you to stay out late without your parents’ supervision (but what level of confidence that their belief in your maturity is a justified belief must a parent have before letting their precious child out into the dark, scary world?) Such questions were in the background of course, and the whole process of addressing them probably seemed so automatic to you that you didn’t even give it a second thought. But this is philosophical thinking at play here, not mere rhetoric; unlike in politics or the other slums of our current society where glitz and glamor make far more of a difference than verifiable evidence or clear reasoning, your parents were (hopefully) not foolish enough to be misled by mere ploy on your part;and even if they were, then,  ironically your very ability to hide your misdeeds from your parents was a part of your socialization and your process of maturation, since such skills are, for better or worse, something that all adolescents (including your parents when they were adolescents) experience. And it was this overall experience that you were trying to use as evidence for your parents that they ought to allow you to stay out late, that it was rational for them to do so, meaning that you were ultimately engaged in philosophical thinking long ago and always have been, whether you wanted to be or not.

Perhaps you did not find that last paragraph convincing (if you didn’t I concede that a cynic would probably note that one’s ability to argue can take place far in isolation from the philosophical questions that concern whether one’s arguments are good or true arguments) and a reader might still wish to insist that philosophy is just another avenue of study, and not some pervasive bedrock that is ultimately in the business of constructing a coherent, plausible worldview as I’ve been maintaining. But if you wish to insist that, take a moment to note what you might presumably be doing; going back to my previous paragraph, analyzing what I’ve said and trying to figure out what the gaps in the arguments are, where the premises don’t follow etc. But isn’t all of this to the end of showing why one perspective, one worldview (that philosophy is an ultimately universal human experience of sorting out truth from falsehood in order to not only practically live life, but in order to understand our own place in the world around us) is in fact false, and another (perhaps that it is socialization or Divine Predestination that dictates who we are and what we believe) is preferable? And insofar as you might write angry comments on this page insisting that it’s all hokum and that I’m a hack who ought to keep his mouth shut, are you not also trying to favorably present an alternative way of seeing this debate, one that will have very drastic implications for a person’s overall worldview in general? (I sincerely hope this page has not angered anyone to the point where they would wish to do so of course; if people would get so upset over such a relatively mundane debate the internet is an even crazier place than I thought). If you are doing these things it would seem that, far from showing that philosophy is ‘meaningless speculation over unimportant questions’ or an archaic field that we can safely ignore, you have instead merely engaged in a bit of it yourself, in an attempt to show why an alternative explanation should not be taken seriously.

But all of this, in the end, is why you should give a damn about philosophy- not only because it is necessary for an educated adult to be able to navigate the world of human experience, in which the inputs gleaned from science, religion, culture, upbringing etc. are often radically different and opposed, but because you really don’t have a choice. Even if you don’t give a damn you’re already doing it and you have been for a long time. Given this state of affairs, it is important, as far as I can tell, that philosophy be done consciously, carefully and cautiously. In this way we can harmonize the vast degree of experiences we are presented with throughout our lives, which I do believe makes them ultimately happier and more fulfilling. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should give a damn about philosophy.

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