Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Why I Do Not Read Philosophy Books

I grew up, in my child geekhood, thinking that the pursuit of philosophy was the noblest thing the mind could do. When I was in high school, entering adolescent geekhood, I still thought this. I didn’t actually read the philosophers; I didn’t even get through Philosophy Made Simple. But I tried. I remember sitting in the school library trying to read Plato in the Great Books of the Western World series. I was, of course, the only student in the library, which was part of the cafeteria. The librarian kept saying what a wonderful spring day it was. Of course, looking back on it, she was right. I should have been out observing the natural world. Come to think of it, watching grass grow would have been a good idea. But I focused on Plato. For just one afternoon, then I quit.

Since that time I have been too busy with science to read philosophy. But I always thought it a valid field of study. And it is clear to me that it is essential for everyone to think about the Big Questions, even if they do not have time to read what Socrates said about Them. Plato (or Socrates, whichever one it was) was clearly right: The unexamined life is not worth living.

I recently heard a radio interview of James Miller regarding his book Examined Lives, in which he explores the lives of twelve philosophers, noting that they seemed to always try to bring their personal lives into conformity with their philosophies, even if they frequently failed (especially Rousseau). The host asked the listeners to call in and say which philosopher they based their lives on. It was a rerun so I did not call, but my answer was clearly Charles Darwin.

Darwin understood how the world works and where it came from. His insights have been confirmed by all of modern science, including the brain sciences, which show how our very patterns of thought and feeling have evolved. He was no formal philosopher, but he did the best he could. For example, he understood that the eternal theological stumbling block, theodicy (why does God allow evil) is solved by natural selection: evolution favors whatever works, whether it makes animals happy or miserable. As Francisco Ayala (also a biologist, not a philosopher) says, natural selection lets God off the hook for the problem of Evil. Darwin tried to rationalize happiness and goodness, emphasizing that being good can provide evolutionary advantages. Most of all, Darwin felt the thrill and awe that one cannot avoid when studying the natural world. He got a little tired of studying barnacles, but otherwise he was constantly happy despite his illness, as he studied pigeons and orchids and worms. A philosopher asks, what is the good life? Darwin said the good life is to understand the beauty of the world. “…endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful, have been and are being evolved” were the final words of the Origin of Species and, I think, better than anything Plato ever wrote. Certainly Nietzsche. (Did I spell that right?)

Perhaps Darwin’s most important contribution was to get us to realize that we cannot ascertain philosophical truth by just thinking about it. Our thoughts are the emotional, often illogical, self-deceiving patterns that allowed our ancestors to survive, and to reproduce more than other people who were not, therefore, our ancestors. To understand philosophy, then, we must understand brain science.

But philosophers do not often take that step. I started to read a book several years ago entitled Philosophy in the Flesh which took this approach. I got lost, and discontinued the book, but the idea is commendable.

When a listener called in, asking about science, I expected Miller to say something like what I just said. It would have been a welcome convergence of science and philosophy. But Miller made some truly confounding statements. He implied that science is very specialized, that ordinary people cannot understand it, that scientists only think about their specialized fields, and therefore science is not very useful for thinking about the Big Questions. It sounded to me like, if you want to understand the world, study the philosophers; if you want to make carbon nanotubules then go home and turn your brain off, study science. (In fairness I must add that I have not read his book. I base this just on the interview. But, am I likely to read his book? Not now.)

It is because most philosophers take Miller’s approach that I consider philosophy to be a waste of time. Science leads to reality because it tests hypotheses about the physical world, and because it helps us understand how our brains work. If philosophers embraced this, it would become a useful discipline. But philosophers seem to be stuck in the rut of thinking about what Socrates said (or Nietzsche [did I spell that right?] for God’s sake, nor not). Philosophy is a valuable subdiscipline of history (which, by the way, is an extremely important field of study): the history of what people who loved to think thought. But you are no more likely to come closer to truth by embracing Aristotle’s categories of reality than you are by coming up with your own; maybe less so, since Aristotle’s thinking may have been influenced by Macedonian aspirations to empire.

One time, I planned to write a book called Everything. If I ever do this, I will start with science, not philosophy; Darwin, not Socrates.


  1. Yet another scientist who think that in order to advance their field they must denigrate, ignorantly, another.

  2. Hi, i study science and philosophy and i can tell you will never be a good scientist and nor a good thinker ( and even a good person because you judge things too fast) if you keep continuing thinking like some childhood prepubert. And if you read some of the work of Darwin (especially the preface) you should know he was a great lecturer and admirator of a philosophy (socracte include) but i think you will never understand why. A stupid man never become smart (this is more or less the thought of PLato. Sorry for my english i'm french