Essay:Why Philosophy Matters

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I do not contend that philosophy is a particularly auspicious area of study in isolation, let alone a reliable route to genius. After all, to quote Michael Sandel, “Philosophy does not inform. It tells us what we already know.” Rather, I see philosophy as a prerequisite to virtually all inquiry, academic or otherwise.

As a child, I was compelled to listen to arguments presented to me, mostly by adults, partly as a matter of respect. I simply did not know enough about the world to do otherwise. I neither do, nor have ever, claimed great expertise in much. I learnt a lot from listening to people. However, what I learnt was largely not what I wished to learn. I discovered that most adults didn’t know or understand much either!

Frankly, it did not take much creativity, or sheer nit-picking, to reveal that most arguments I heard---concerning many areas of knowledge and including some rather complex arguments---hinged on a possibly indenumerable set of unstated and unconsidered assumptions about the world. So what?, do I hear? Ain’t that necessary to get along? Well it took but a fraction more creativity or nit-picking to reveal how weak and risibly narrow in scope most of the aforementioned arguments were, and that I found the positions for which these arguments were constructed indefensible.

For several years I was in a limbo state, not knowing where to discuss arguments or if this was even done. Then I discovered philosophy. I note that the word philosophy has, at least historically, referred to many ideas, in which I claim but an iota of understanding, knowledge, or skill, in but some of them. But, most, and perhaps all, areas of philosophy are broad in the scope of the arguments they concern, and it is this breadth that I consider not merely important, but essential, to understanding how the world works.

I mean this entirely pragmatically. If a 50-year old internationally-acclaimed physicist were giving a talk on his research into gravity, I would, very likely, respect that he knew rather more about the matter than I do! But, if he also demonstrated a hostility to philosophy and its methods, say, in response to a question on the new riddle of induction, I would still hold that he did not understand science, and his research and its methods should be treated with great suspicion, by virtue of his wilful compromise of his reasoning skills.

But, to speak of skills that are important in solving practical problems suggests a deficiency in the process of their testing: summative assessment is essential to the maintenance and/or improvement of standards. I, dear reader, am an educator professionally, and you might guess that I have ideas of my own. Should you have guessed so, I answer you thus: oh yes I do!

I have written an exam paper, intended for school leavers, in Applied Knowledge. I would make it, under law, a mandatory qualification to study, and all universities would be obliged to require it as part of university offers.

You have two hours

Consider the following TWO scenarios.

A A British parliamentary debate arises before 2030 concerning the plan to make Britain tobacco-free by said year. It is pointed out that since tobacco makes people tougher, with it we can reasonably keep defence expenditures down. The concession made by Boris Johnson is that if we keep tobacco, defence can even be scrapped entirely as the population are sufficiently tough due to smoking that there is no need for defence. The concession made by Jeremy Corbyn is that without tobacco, defence expenditure must a least double, with the additional requirement that Trident expenditure triples, as otherwise the country will simply not be safe. The conclusion is to scrap defence but retain and heavily subsidise tobacco products.

B By 2030, the famed SI system units is reformed in that one base unit changes its name and symbol. Presently, temperature is measured in kelvin, symbol K. However, it is suggested by leading scientists that since smoking makes people cool, the most natural unit of temperature is inverse cigarettes smoked/day. Across the globe, schools purchase new textbooks to reflect the change of unit, and academic publishing keeps up with scarcely a hiccup.

The probability of scenario A occurring is denoted P(A) and the probability of scenario B occurring is denoted P(B).

Given the deliberately implausible, even idiotic, nature of both scenarios, both probabilities, found by any method, are expected to be small. However, drawing any statement, however uninteresting, about the quantity P(A)/P(B) seems far less obvious.

Your task is to analyse the problem of meaningfully estimating P(A)/P(B). It is noted that analyse and solve are not synonymous, and a comprehensive discussion of why the question is difficult without any sort of solution can be sufficient to access all marks on this paper.

This is an academic task, and language will be judged on technical, rather than poetic, qualities. An essay format is expected, with the important caveat that the traditional Socratic dialogue is accepted when the point being made is of a philosophical nature. Nonetheless, it is stressed that this is not particularly a philosophy task, and reference to a wide variety of scholarship and reliable third-party data is needed for high marks.

Blue or black ink.

The task is interesting on a number of levels. By virtue of how bizarre the scenarios are, a snippet gleaned from the blurb of a pop-sci book is unlikely to provide anything tantamount to an answer! Moreover, it is not easy to see what specialist knowledge there is that would greatly empower someone to write an intelligent essay on the matter: I, dear reader, am likely little more empowered by my education and life experience to address this task than you are.

Paradoxically, the scope for scholarship is enormous! Someone with a knowledge of the British parliament and the International Bureau of Weights and Measures might argue that the number of reforms required for this to easily happen is larger for one institution than the other. Someone with a knowledge of sociology might be able to explain why particular caricatures of smokers are more prevalent than others. If someone models the likelihoods P(A) and P(B) as being (arithmetic) products of some general “smoking popularity” function, then a curious result is found: the quotient P(A)/P(B) has no dependence on the popularity of smoking whatsoever, which may mean it is possible to intelligently estimate the quotient without being too sure of either probability separately! Veering into philosophy, someone could rip apart the ontologies with which we look at reality, explain any glaring gaps in our abilities to understand phenomena, and further shed light on what makes this problem hard. Frankly, anyone who couldn’t churn out a couple of pages of coherent, academic, on-topic writing in response to the above exam script just ain’t that good.

So, is philosophy pretentious? I say no, it is the only route from pretentiousness.