My love–hate affair with philosophy
I live in a love-hate relationship with philosophy. Being a biologist I was trained to dismantle the whole, study the parts and rebuild the whole again. It is a rational process similar to reverse engineering.
We ask ourselves what the mind is. Then we look inside the brain, take it apart, observe how each part works, put it back together (hoping that the brain does not behave like an Ikea wardrobe) and in the end we realise that we’ve got some screws left and we don’t know what they are for.
This process helps us to understand the anatomy and associated mechanisms of the brain, but does not explain the epiphenomena produced by the brain. It does not explain what philosophers call “the mind”, “consciousness”, “sentience, and so on.
We know what emotions are, how they are formed, the neuronal pathways that guide serotonin and other neurotransmitters that enable our brains to expel emotions.
Then we feel these emotions, we evaluate them, we submit them to the scrutiny of our ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) and take decisions.
Should I beat up my partner because he is drooling over the sight of a well-shaped woman, or should I damp down my primeval instincts? Depending on how well my VMPC works, I will control my behaviour and eventually rationalize it at such a level that it will control my own emotions.
In animal welfare science we distinguish emotions from feelings. Emotions are physiological responses that we have no control over; feelings are the conscious acknowledgement of our emotions. Emotions such as love, jealousy, rage, are physiological expressions that are aroused by internal and external motivational triggers outside our control, but the behaviours that we choose to display, are under our voluntary control.
Now, what does it all have to do with philosophy?
Philosophy is seen as a non-go area for science students. I have only the philosophers to blame for this. Why do they have half a page to define something that can be described in a 3 line paragraph?
Philosophy helps us scientists to frame questions in interesting ways. Philosophers came about with ideas about philosophy of mind and scientists devised methods to understand it collecting empirical data that can eventually confirm (or not) philosophical speculation.
But philosophers are also so bloody complicated with the use of their intricate language and cloudy speculations on hypothetical “state of affairs”! Some of their “thought experiments” would never occur in this planet. So I ask myself, why do these guys complicate what is simple?
See for example the trolley problem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem).
How many people would find themselves in a situation where they are happily walking over a railway line which is precisely on a track bifurcation and are surprised by the sight of 5 people stuck to one track an 1 person stuck to the other? Perhaps if they lived in Calabria or Sicily in the Mafia infested territories, this wouldn’t be surprising at all. But would they dare to take action?
Anyway, the trolley problem is interesting to test what would we do in such hypothetical situation. People would respond differently whether they have to choose between letting one person die to save the other five (the utilitarian approach) or killing one very fat person throwing him of the bridge to stop with its 200kg of superfluous blubber the rampant approaching train to save 5 people from dying (deontological approach).
The trick of this exercise is in the understanding of the words “active killing” and “let die”. Without the help of philosophical analysis I might never have understood the point of this exercise had I not been aware of the philosophical difference between “killing” and “let die”.
This is also important in our attitudes towards animals. When I ask a vegetarian if he would eat a steak, he would refuse the offer because he assumed that the steak comes from a cow that was “killed” specifically for making stakes. But some vegetarians would claim that they would take the offer if I offered them a road kills for dinner, say a pheasant that just fly crashed against my car while I was driving home.
I love philosophy precisely because it helps me to analyse an argument from many different perspectives. When we are science specialists we often fail to see other points of view outside our narrow filed of expertise, but do philosophers have to make so dammed complicated? For goodness sake! Have a grip!…
I ask myself if moral philosophy is meant to help humans to make ethical decisions, or at least to help us to justify our decisions, shouldn’t this tool come with easy to read instructions manual?
Philosophers should rethink their writing style and present philosophy more like an Ikea guide chart than a manual to the installation of Windows Server Networks.
If philosophy becomes an infinite argument among a closed exclusive club of philosophers where only 5 understand what the heck they are talking about, what is the point of it?
However, and thanks the flying spaghetti monster for that, there is a breed of philosophers who seemed to have recognised this danger and are actually striving to bring the wonders of philosophy to common mortals like us simple students of science.
People like Julian Baggini (http://julianbaggini.blogspot.co.uk/), Stephen Law (http://stephenlaw.blogspot.co.uk/), Mike Rowlands (rowlands.philospot.com) made philosophy an enjoyable pursuit accessible to the general public.
If S.J. Gold, R.Dawkins, E.O.Wilson are the kings of pop science, Baggini, Rowalnds and Law are certainly the cardinals of pop philosophy.
I love these guys. I am always recommending their books to my students.
I just wish that university science departments followed in their steps and brought in compulsory subjects in critical thinking, philosophy of science and ethics to the laboratory benches.
Philosophy is not boring, but some philosophers can make it really inedible just like vegetables in English cuisine!…Some writers seem to be more preoccupied in showing off their literary prowess than to communicate clear ideas. How frustrating !!!!
The K.I.S.S. rule ( keep it simple stupid!) is one of the first rules taught to science students when they start writing about their subjects. In philosophy the rule seems to be,” regurgitate the whole Oxford English Dictionary collecting as many tautologies as possible”.