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In Defence of Pure Reason

Recently, a friend of mine told me a story – that I imagine he found on the internet – that irked me greatly. In the story, a Philosophy Professor arranges a test for her students and, when the students arrive, the Professor places a chair down in front of them and asks them to prove to her that it doesn’t exist. The students start writing, and a few seconds into the test one student takes his paper, hands it to the professor and walks out. This student gets 100% on the test. His answer? ‘What chair?’

This story irks me, largely because it seems to me to be indicative of a certain mindset: a mindset that thinks that Philosophy doesn’t matter; that it’s a joke. Many people have suggested that Philosophy is a discipline for the lazy, the stoners and those who are a bit airy-fairy. They argue that Philosophy doesn’t really matter.  This is simply not the case. In fact, Philosophy is as important now as it has been historically. We are living in an age that is increasingly being referred to as ‘post-truth’. Everywhere you look in the media you will find baseless claims and blatant rhetoric, often bordering on fear-mongering. I’m sure everyone knows someone who has expounded anti-immigrant sentiment because whatever their chosen media outlet is told them the immigrants are bad. In an age where this is becoming increasingly more common and prevalent, we as a society ought to encourage people to question such sentiment. We ought to encourage people to look at such rhetoric, such baseless claims, and ask ‘but why?’. ‘But why should I believe this?’, ‘but why should I do that?’. In my view, Philosophy is the perfect step forward in this regard: you cannot teach Philosophy without encouraging reasoning and argument. In an era where we are increasingly being asked to believe things without evidence, we need to learn to reason, question and argue against such baseless arguments and Philosophy is the perfect place to encourage this mindset.

In fact, we could even go so far as to offer Philosophy as a subject at the Secondary school level. Nevermind the fact that many University Professors have criticised the Irish education system for not doing enough to encourage independent research, offering Philosophy at a younger age than it is currently available could be a good step towards bucking the trend of baseless populism. Furthermore, some people seem to be of the opinion that Philosophy is a lesser discipline in the face of the academic giants of science and empiricism. This, too, is not wholly true. While it may be fair to say that sciences like medicine have an important role to play in society as a whole, Philosophy’s role in the sciences themselves should not be ignored. Firstly, those studying science to a certain level are required to take classes in ethics, demonstrating a certain awareness among academics of the necessities of ethical thought. Secondly – though perhaps less immediately obvious – Philosophy can serve to offer some potential answers to questions that are unanswerable by science, either because we do not yet have the technology or because we never will.

Take, for example, pain. Science can tell us what causes pain – what chemical reactions or neurological processes lead to the unpleasant sensations we associate with pain – but it cannot tell us what it feels like to be in pain; what the subjective experience of being in pain is actually like. Yes it ‘hurts’, but what does that, scientifically speaking, mean? Furthermore, there is the problem of pain in other creatures. I don’t know what the neurological process for pain is, but we can imagine that it may be a certain set of neurons in the brain activating in response to bodily damage. This is all well and good, but it may be so that an entirely different process happens in a dog’s brain when it’s hurt. Yet, kick a person and kick a dog and we will describe both of them being in pain. Are we wrong in thinking of both these creatures being in pain, since the underlying structure differs? Do we need a new definition for pain, or do we need to break the concept of pain into many sub-concepts? Do we unconsciously imply differing conceptions of pain when we speak normally? Philosophy can serve to help us answer these kinds of questions, or at the very least Philosophy can show us that these are questions that need answering. Even if the sum total of satisfactorily answered questions in Philosophy rests at around 0, it is nonetheless useful to engage in these kinds of discussions – even if ultimately we gain no new answers.

Finally, and more applicably to normal life, Philosophy can help us to appreciate the mindset of other cultures – a skill that is only going to become more important as time goes on. The fact of the matter is that the Philosophical foundations of our culture in the West – dating all the way back to Ancient Greece – shape how we act and think as a society. In the West, something is either true or not true, it cannot be both true and not true. That simply doesn’t make sense to us. This is largely because of the Law of Non-Contradiction, which states that something cannot be A and Not A at the same time. This mindset doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone, and there are schools of Philosophy in East Asia that take it for granted that something can be A and Not A simultaneously; that a statement can be both true and false.We can take this a step further. In the West we are very individualistic: we believe that we have total free will; that we have the ultimate power to affect our lives; that the self is of paramount importance. In most East Asian Philosophies, the emphasis is not on the self but on the collective: what matters is one’s place within the social order. For many in East Asia, their social groups – be it their family, their friends, their company – are more important to them than their self. This mindset has much of its roots in Confucianism, and learning about and practicing these particular philosophical traditions can lead to a better understanding of why people from different cultures act in the way they do – and, indeed, learning about the traditions that shaped our culture can help us to understand why we act in the way we do.

Philosophy is not a joke discipline for the work-shy, and we should not look down upon it: it has been with us for thousands of years, and continues to be as useful to society as when Plato wrote about how to form the perfect city and Kongzi laid out the steps for cultivating one’s inborn virtue.