Philosophy improves thinking skills
Philosophy best improves your critical thinking skills because it forces you to think outside your normal thought cycles. Philosophy is not for everyone, and many are perfectly happy to live their lives without trying to figure out what, exactly, Heidegger is saying. Philosophy does not give us the certainty that math or experimental science can (but even then — as many philosophers would point out — these fields do not give us as much certainty as is sometimes claimed). But that doesn’t mean that philosophy is worthless, or that it doesn’t have rigor. Indeed, in a sense, philosophy is inescapable. To argue that philosophy is useless is to do philosophy.
Seemingly every day, you can find examples of people displaying stunning cultural illiteracy — people in positions where that simply should not happen. The great philosophical tradition that our civilization is built on is left largely untaught. Even “liberal arts” curricula in many colleges do not teach the most influential thinkers. If our elites aren’t being taught this great tradition, then it should come as no surprise that some subset of that elite — experimental scientists and their hangers-on — don’t know it.
That’s part of the problem. But it’s just a part of it. After all, as a group, scientists have an obvious objective interest in experimental science being recognized as the only path to valuable knowledge, and therefore an interest in disdaining other paths to knowledge as less valid. People who listen to scientists opine about philosophy ought to keep that in mind.
And then there’s another factor at play. Many, though certainly not all, of the scientists who opine loudest about the uselessness of philosophy are public atheists. The form of atheism they promote is usually known as “eliminative materialism,” or the notion that matter is the only thing that exists. This theory is motivated by “scientism,” or the notion that the only knowable things are knowable by science. Somewhat paradoxically, these propositions are essentially religious — to dismiss entire swathes of human experience and human thought requires a venture of faith. They’re also not very smart religion, since they end up simply shouting away inconvenient propositions.
Fundamentalism is not a belief system or a religion, it’s a state of mind. There can be fundamentalist religion, fundamentalist atheism, fundamentalist socialism, fundamentalism libertarianism. What all of them have in common is, in David Bentley Hart’s words, “a stubborn refusal to think.” The fundamentalist is not the one whose ideas are too simple or too crude. He’s the one who stubbornly refuses to think through either other ideas, or those ideas themselves.
Sadly, many of our greatest minds give us an example of this state of mind.
To be a “free” person in our civilization requires an understanding of precisely those ideas. Yes, that means also understanding critiques of those ideas, but we’ve gone too far in the other direction. We’ve reached a point where our elites don’t even understand the basic concepts that make our civilization run. A civilization is nothing but institutions, and institutions are nothing but ideas in motion — in our case, institutions such as human rights, liberal democracy, free market capitalism, the scientific method, and so on.
Writers report on “studies” that they’re not numerate enough to understand. And the ability to understand data, to query it, to manipulate it, can be taught. A specific science (computers!) should not be a basic part of the liberal arts curriculum, but a strong foundation in mathematics and statistics should definitely be.
Economics and sociology are valuable, as long as you understand the processes by which they arrive at their findings, and the limits of those processes. This is the hard work of epistemology, which is the study of how we decide which things are true and which aren’t, and how we prove things, which might be the most important discipline today as well as the most understudied.