BY JORDI FAXON
What is the use of philosophy? I mean, in the real world. What purpose can these ideas serve? It’s all good and well for Parmenides to claim, through his rational deduction, that the universe can only be one unchanging whole, for Gottfried Leibniz to invent a measurable unit of metaphysical substance called a monad, or for Jacques Derrida to say that all of our convictions are merely reflections of a mode of thought endowed by the society in which we live, which we are truly unable to question or see through. But one can’t help but wonder how any of these thoughts could be viewed as meaningful or important to living, or towards becoming more robustly human, when it’s still so irrelevant in the public circle.
One wouldn’t be wrong to wonder. Such metaphysical claims really seem to bear no effect on our actions, and are often shrugged off by most people as overly speculative and unfalsifiable.
But is there something else we’re missing?
Before I venture into defending the field of philosophy as legitimately important, I’d like to say that I study it primarily because I myself find it fascinating, not out of a moral obligation to the advancement of humanity, and I would be happy to say that I pursue it for no other reason than my own enjoyment if it were proved as ultimately useless.
I do think there is value in the pursuit of philosophy. One of the most obvious arguments for the study of philosophy being important is that technological innovations are piling on top of each other at a faster and faster rate every year, and soon scientists will have to work with ethicists to determine what limits they should impose on their exploration. Several possibilities of technological growth being speculated today open up a mountain of ethical dilemmas, most notably that of Artificial Superintelligence. The prospect of fabricating a mind that can feel and is self-aware raises questions about consciousness, value of the self, what defines a human, etc., and before that terrain is accessed, it would be essential to understand what ethical standards would dictate human-robot interactions.
That said, this only encompasses the field of ethics, which most people would agree is at least somewhat applicable to society. What about metaphysics (the study of being)? Epistemology (the study of knowledge)? Set Theory (the study of arrangement and association)? Is there any usage that can be derived from these seeming hyper-abstract semantic games?
Well, I would still say so, in that all of those can inform your ethical convictions, if executed dutifully. Plato is an interesting example; his thought showed a lineage across disparate fields of inquiry that all sprouted from one or two metaphysical principles, (which are very dubious, sure, but if you humor me it will pay off). He thought that it was bizarre how humans are able to form concepts, how we know that a tree we’ve never seen before is a tree, and not its own entirely individual collection of green and brown. How could this affinity for concept assignment magically appear as we age? To Plato, what made more sense was not that we were learning new information, but remembering old information. He saw learning as merely the process wherein we solidify memories from the World of Forms, which he believed to be a non-physical world where all of the world’s concepts (in their pure forms) come from. His ethics grew naturally as an offspring of this belief. His moral imperative was that we should act in such a way as to bring ourselves closer to the World of Forms, which to him was the truest iteration of reality, far truer than Earth, which he called the World of Shadows. For instance, he saw all art—painting, music, theater—as a dangerous phenomenon because it all dealt with metaphor and illusion, and was meant to deceive us into having sympathizing with people that don’t exist, or surmising real-world objects from paint and canvas. To him, art was a devolution from our path towards enlightenment.
Now, Plato was obviously wrong. But it’s still important to note that his ethical theories were directly related to his theory of metaphysics. The consistency in his thought reveals an important value of metaphysics and its associates, in its solidification of ethical principles. Thus, all of philosophy is necessary for this very reason: To know how to act, we must know how to think.