Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…


What’s so funny about philosophy?

My friend Frank took me to his private comedy club. The members are all getting on a bit and they have all heard each other’s jokes a million times before. To save time, they don’t even tell the whole joke any more; they just recite its number in the jokes catalogue.

Number 27!
Ha! Ha! Ha!

They each take turns to stand up and recite a joke number and, because they all know the jokes by heart and because the jokes are still funny, they fall around laughing.

Number 43!
Ha! Ha! Ha!

I asked Frank if I could give it a try.

Number 24!
** silence **

Nobody laughed. I was mortified and sank back into my seat. I asked Frank what I did wrong.

Frank offered to teach me and he stood up and told the same joke that I told.

Number 24!
Ha! Ha! Ha!

Everyone was in fits of laughter. ‘What the hell?’ I asked. ‘I told the exact same joke. Why was it funny when you said it?’

“It’s the way I tell ’em!” said Frank.

“It’s the way I tell ’em”

Hanging out with the philosophers on Twitter, it seems to me that everyone just repeats the same arguments over and over. They might as well be reciting numbers from the catalogue.

Every event has a cause and the cause is either determined or it is random. Therefore free will does not exist.

You know that consciousness is real because you have experiences.

1. Everything which exists has a cause.
2. The universe exists.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
4. That cause we call God.

I can understand students having arguments like these (I am a student and I have arguments like these) but there are philosophy professors having arguments like these over and over. Imagine having these same arguments over and over, forever and ever. Imagine if you get rewarded based on your ability to publish papers with arguments like these.

There is a pair of professors who have opposite views on the nature of consciousness. Every month, they make a video where they have the same argument over and over. Sometimes, they invite guest philosophers who join in so they can make the same arguments too.

One of our tutors challenged us with the question: What’s the point of doing philosophy? Why spend precious time on it? Is it pointless? Does it make our personal lives better? Does it make society better?

I don’t think philosophy is pointless. Playing my guitar gives me pleasure, even if I am not very good at it. Philosophy gives me pleasure and anything that gives me pleasure is not pointless.

There are certain topics that have the potential to change your life. Learning about existentialism was life-changing for me. Aristotle’s advice for living a virtuous life was valuable too. Philosophy can teach us how to live. That’s both cool and useful!

I believe that philosophy can contribute to lots of areas related to ethics, justice and politics. Rawls wrote a book that changed politics all across the Western world (shame he was wrong though). Nozick (also wrong) made a big difference too. Pete Singer is probably the most influential philosopher alive and he has made a lot of people revisit how they think about altruism and animal welfare.

Lots of other topics in philosophy seem more like doing sudoku puzzles than changing the world. Imagine spending your working days wondering what happens when you poke the corner of your eye. It all goes blurry! But where is that blur? Is it in your eye? Or in your brain? Or in the blurry picture on the opposite wall?

Who cares?

The philosophy of science seems interesting — but not as interesting as being a scientist. There are plenty of topics in the philosophy of biology that I find fascinating — What is life? What separates one species from another? — but if I wanted to make a difference in zoology, I’d study to be a zoologist, not a philosopher of zoology. Does philosophy have anything to add to science? What do the scientists say?

I believe that knowing how to think like a philosopher can be valuable in any profession. Philosophy teaches us how to think clearly about a problem and how to clearly present an argument. Those are skills that everyone should learn. Especially scientists. But knowing philosophy? I am not so sure.

When I was at school, maths and english were compulsory subjects but I think most smart people learn enough maths and english before they are fourteen and most topics after that will never come up again (for most people). By all means, people who enjoy learning maths and people who are destined to use maths in their career should have the opportunity to learn more but most folks rarely use any skill they learned after the most basic algebra. As Mr Hickey said when he was trying to persuade us that A Level Latin was not entirely useless: ‘Well, I’ve never used a quadratic equation either!’

I think there’s a case for teaching philosophy as a compulsory subject instead of maths and English. The kind of essays that you write in philosophy are closer to the kind of writing that you do in the real world and the logic you learn doing philosophy proofs is more relevant to real life than the logic you learn doing geometry proofs. Everyone needs to know how to make a good argument but how many people need to find the square on the hypotenuse?

So back to the question: What’s the point of doing philosophy?

I think it’s useful for scientists to learn philosophy but I’m not sure how much philosophers contribute to science. I expect the next great breakthrough in zoology will come from a zoologist, not from a philosopher of zoology.

Philosophy helps all of us to think more clearly and to make good arguments. A few topics in philosophy have the potential to change the world but most topics are just good, clean fun; like learning to play the guitar or doing a sudoku puzzle — and that’s fine too.