Recently I read a comment on Facebook asking, “Why doesn’t anyone quote textbooks on Ontology anymore?” (That guy needs to be apart of our blog.) This seemed like an odd question to me. Isn’t the answer obvious? No one quotes textbooks on Ontology anymore because no one reads textbooks on Ontology anymore.
Allow me to offer a couple more observations before I get into the meat of the entry. I was in Barnes & Nobles the other month (yes they still sell books that are in print), and had some trouble finding the Philosophy (here forward referred to as Phil) section. The reason that I had trouble is because this section had been condensed down to three shelves. This equates to one-half, of one-sixth, of one side, of one section of the bookstore. I contrasted that to the self-help, romance, and graphic novel sections which all still seemed to be booming. That same visit I picked up a Newsweek magazine that had ranked the top 100 grad programs according to each discipline of study—business, law, medicine, education, psychology, etc. I looked for the Phil section, but could not find him. Then I thought that maybe he would be listed under liberal arts or humanities. He wasn’t there either. Newsweek did not list Phil as an area of graduate studies.
In my cynical opinion, Phil is a dying breed. I have a growing concern that he is approaching extinction. It is possible that Phil could be revived, but it may require checking him into intensive care. He definitely needs it. Im not writing to prescribe a treatment plan as I am not sure what that would entail. I just want to highlight two primary reasons why we are losing Phil and what that has to say about our society.
Cash Rules Everything Around Me!
A few years ago, it was my stated purpose in life to teach Phil in a university. I began my graduate work with zeal, but I have since abandoned this academic pursuit. There are a number of reasons for this, but the primary one is that I could no longer ignore the growing concern—where am I going to find a job? I do not recall ever seeing a “Now hiring Philosophers” add in the classifieds. They failed to include Phil as a category on careerbuilder. Yes that is right, I succumbed to the selfish, materialistic concern of wanting to provide for myself and my family (if I ever have one lol).
It is no secret that our society has become pragmatic. Most students now attend universities, not to get an education, but to get a degree. I do not mean that they are not getting an education in the process of obtaining a degree, but the purpose for universities, in the eyes of many, is now to prepare and qualify one for a career. If there is not much opportunity for a career in your chosen area of study, it is not very practical to pursue it. I am not saying that everyone is eying a big paycheck, but nobody wants to be unemployed. The situation that this has created is only the degrees that have practical value—the ones that will get you a paycheck—are now pursued in college. Many universities are cutting back in their Phil department. The reason they are doing that is because of the dwindling number of Phil majors. Universities are not going to continue to pay professors to teach classes that students are no longer taking. If Phil cannot provide a paycheck, then Phil will no longer be studied. What will this result in? The vast majority of our college graduates, future leaders, and society will have no philosophical training.
“Would you please stop trying to make fun of me with such jokes! From you I have learned the price of a basket of fish and how much interest one can demand when one lends money. This is your science. From you, dear Kamaswami, I have not learned how to think; you should rather learn that from me.” –Siddhartha
The result of this pragmatic shift is that we are steadily learning what to think, but steady losing the ability of how to think. When I state that Phil is on the brink of extinction, I do not at all mean that we are no longer utilizing Phil. Phil is inescapable. Everyone operates on philosophical foundations, but most do not realize it. The dominant foundations that most people operate on are instilled or assumed, but they are not evaluated. You could almost call them a priori. So while we have and will always have philosophical foundations to our beliefs/ideas, those foundations go unchecked and tend to be very sloppy. I would never pronounce Phil to be dead, but I fear he may be comatose.
I Thought Monopolies Were a Bad Thing?
Along with the pragmatic reason for Phil’s condition, there is an epistemological reason that we are losing Phil. Of course, the irony in this is that epistemology is one of Phil’s offspring. Paradoxically, Phil is hurting Phil. Epistemology is the branch of Phil that studies knowledge. Phil is losing his claim to knowledge, while science is cornering the market. There is a false dichotomy between Phil and science that has been created due to our sloppy philosophical foundations. This false dichotomy has created the misconception that science tells us anything meaningful about reality while Phil deals strictly in speculation. They don’t know Phil very well.
Phil was once considered the “Queen of the Sciences.” Surprisingly, theology was once considered her King. Aristotle was thoroughly inductive in his approach to knowledge. For instance, he gave us our first classification of species. When Aristotle was taking a scientific approach to understanding reality, he was doing Phil. Somewhere along the way, Phil caught a bad rep though. At times, Phil became very unscientific and this made some of his students angry. They sought to reclaim Phil. They said, “Lets cleanse Phil of all speculation. We shall return him to the sciences.” Like many reactions, this became a bit of an overreaction, and eventually we came to believe that science didn’t need Phil. We even bought the preposterous idea that science could escape Phil! So we falsely charged Phil with the crime of speculation and we locked him away in the prison of meaninglessness. This is where Theo lives too.
In all seriousness, Phil is considered by many to be some kind of exercise in imagination that is full of prejudices and opinion, but no knowledge. Only science gives us knowledge. This misconception assumes that science does not operate on philosophical foundations. It also assumes that scientific discovery does not lead to inferences made from the data. If the inferences are not noticed, how can they be rigorously evaluated? And since Phil has been removed, many scientists are not trained to conduct rigorous evaluation of their inferences. These unevaluated presuppositions and inferences have produced brilliant scientists who are crummy philosophers. Exhibit A: Richard Dawkins.
The Silver Lining
Phil of Religion is making a comeback and theists are becoming more prominent amongst philosophers. I think this is due to the growing interest in Phil amongst theists and the declining interest in Phil amongst non-theists. Although there is reason to be hopeful, we should be concerned about the state of Phil. It does us no good to gain ground in this discipline if the discipline itself has been written off. This only serves to keep theism relegated to the realm of speculation. Phil must be revived! I wouldn’t seriously advise someone to pursue a career in Phil, but I would suggest paying him an occasional visit. You can find him hiding in the corner of your local Barnes & Nobles store.
“A society where the simple many obey the few seers can live: a society where all were seers could live even more fully. But a society where the mass is still simple and the seers are no longer attended to can achieve only superficiality, baseness, ugliness, and in the end extinction.”
The following link takes you to a discussion between Richard Dawkins & Neil deGrasse Tyson on the wonders of science. Right around 01:02:45, they are asked a question on philosophy’s role in science. Tyson responds by saying that since the advent of quantum physics, Philosophy’s contribution to science is obsolete. As an added bonus, Dawkins demonstrates some ignorance of the history of philosophy in his response.