What Do Philosophers Do (and Why Bother?)

I love philosophy, reading it, writing it, and talking about it. I acknowledge this is a bit of niche interest, as most primary and secondary do not offer philosophy in their curriculum, and many people see philosophy as a “Worthless Major” in college. In actuality, philosophy majors earn on average more than any other humanities major, with a mid-career median of $82K (/http://www.theatlantic.com/…/philosophy-majors-out-…/403555/).

I, for one, am interested in becoming a professional philosopher, which includes similar earning trajectory over time, provided one finds a tenured position at a university, or lands a place at a thinktank. Erik Olin Wright, professor at the University of Wisconsin’s Sociology department, and one of the more esteemed philosophical sociologists in the business, brings in $400K a year (his book “Imagining Real Utopias” is wonderful), but in order to get to this place, one must obtain a Ph.D, which takes anywhere from 5 to 10 years of full-time study, and needs to market themselves in the crowded University market.

The first question the prospective philosopher should ask themselves is, why bother? One third of all PhDs will not finish their program. And of those who do finish, approximately half of all PhDs will never find a tenure-track position; this would be like if half of all board-certified doctors could only find jobs working as elementary school nurses. There are other career options: I personally know philosophy majors who ended up making bank by becoming recruiters and business consultants, by becoming a public relations specialist for an oil company, by becoming lawyers, politicos, and non-profit administrators. The idea that the only thing one can do with an education in philosophy (or english, or history, or sociology…) is teach is false, but after working in the non-profit field for a few years myself, I am interested in teaching and writing philosophy, a practice that I believe have tremendous utility in the world.

What is philosophy? The direct greek translation means, “The Love of Wisdom.” In practice, academic philosophy is a set of subjects that center around two broad questions: What is the world like? And How should the world be? Dealing with these questions are the six major disciplines of analytic philosophy: Ethics, Politics, Aesthetics, Logic, Epistemology, and Metaphysics. I will summarize each of these fields, and give some examples as to why they matter.

Ethics is the study of how we ought to live our lives, especially with regards as to our actions and values. The three major subfields are metaethics, which studies the nature of what a value or moral is, and if it exists; normative ethics, which are theories of morality; and, applied ethics, where you find the fun cases like abortion, capital punishment, and health care.
Even though we often disagree about how we ought to act, studying ethics helps give a person a language and a rational for their values. This is applicable in just about every professional field imaginable.

Probably the most popular subject in philosophy, given that everybody seems to have an opinion about it, politics is the study of power and its relationship with groups of people.
Political ideology motivates wars, treaties, economies, education, and just about every major force that affects a person’s life. A knowledge of political philosophy, especially theories of power, is a tool to be able to make a change in the world.

This is easily the most neglected field in philosophy: aesthetics is the study of art, especially trying to make sense of beauty. Aestheticians often explore questions of whether beauty or ugliness can be an objective property of an object, what actually is art, and what our attitudes toward artistic judgement ought to be.
Art is always political. Having a way to think about art without throwing your hands up and saying, “Bah! It’s all subjective!” is useful for looking into other cultures and making sense of the ideas of people within their time periods, as well as question why you find what you do of value.

Logic is the set of rules and structures that govern rational thought. Logic is closely related to mathematics (and some philosophers have attempted to prove that math is an applied form of logic), and relies on lots of symbols and axioms that are very confusing if you are not familiar.
Computer programming and lots of higher-order mathematics owe a huge debt to the work of logicians. Formal logic might be one of the most applicable skills one can learn with a philosophy background. Additionally, a knowledge of logical fallacies and how to avoid them makes your conversations much more consistent and cogent.

As the study of knowledge, epistemologists dive into questions like, what does it mean to know something? What can I be certain about? What counts as evidence? Of what value is testimony? How is a belief justified?
Epistemology helps you evaluate your belief structures, and often times makes you very skeptical or challenging about how you have come to believe what you do. Robust epistemologies are very important, especially for fields like science, law, education, and journalism, which grapple with issues around evidence and justification of belief.

Metaphysics is a loaded word, because many people hear this think of chakras, spirits, third eyes, past lives, astral projects, the lost city of Atlantis, and other eccentric beliefs. By metaphysics, what philosophers mean is, the study of abstract concepts, especially those which are just beyond (“meta-”) the reach of physics. Topics include things like, the nature of time, do we have free will, do numbers exist, are minds and brains are the same thing, are there such things as emergent properties, are properties objectively part of the world, and so forth.
Metaphysics is especially abstract, but I do believe there are many cases where science, law, and politics benefit from really examining the structure of their concepts. One prime example is Race. Sociologist WEB DuBois argued that race is a social construct in the 19th century, but it took scientists a couple of generations to come to that same conclusion. Additionally, metaphysics weights heavily in the discussion of religious, spiritual, and ethical beliefs. Consider, “Does God exist?” “Do I have a consistent self-identity throughout my life?” “When does life begin or end?” and “Do we have free will, and if we do or don’t, or what consequence is this?”

Lastly, I think of philosophy as a form of brain-training. Coming to work through the problems people have been exploring for thousands of years gives a context for your own experiences, and can help you make decisions and seek to lead a richer life.

Violence is Applied Power

When I was in college, I once tried giving plasma. During the process, the phlebotomist angled the needle incorrectly, and broke a vein in my arm. I saw the blood pool into a bruise, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I felt supremely vulnerable in a way I had never before. They eventually stuck the needle into my other arm, and began the process of filtering the plasma cells out of a sample of my blood. In a room filled with other people hoping to get 40 dollars for this invasive medical practice which saves no lives directly (as plasma is used for research exclusively), I spontaneously broke into a sob. The nurse stopped the process, and began to fill my arm with saline solution. I became very aware that I was a body, a contingent, physical organism that my conscious self only barely understood. While I might unconsciousness think of myself as being a soul that only happens to use a body, in this moment, I was wholly reliant on this machinery working, on this substance entering my bloodstream from poisoning me. In the end, I was given $20 for the ordeal. I went to a record store and purchased Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois album.

This was one of the most painful moments of my life. Not only because I was experiencing a sharp, physical sensation of cold metal solution coursing through my veins, but also because I had no power. There is a great deal of pain in not having any power. The exercise of power to control others, as I have come to believe, is the stuff of violence. And any moral system that does not consider this relationship between power and violence is not worth our consideration. As a younger person, I thought about violence as something like this:

“Violence: Physical force used to inflict pain on another person.”

When people talked about violence, they always seemed to use it in the context of guns and punching and kicking. Violence is causing pain. Simple enough. At the same time, I heard people talk about power, not just in a scientific sense, but in a political or social way. Superheroes were said to have superpowers, but what exactly is power? I imagined it as something like this,

“Power: The ability to coerce people or things to do what you want.”

Superman can fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes and was super-strong. Of course he had a lot of power, he can punch his way out of hoards of bad guys and his skin could resist bullets, he can do whatever he wants. As a kid, I wondered why Lex Luthor, a multibillionaire tech mogul, was Superman’s main antagonist. Lex Luthor had no superpowers, he was a mere mortal. Perhaps there is something more to power? After all, CEOs and politicians seem to have power. I began to think about it like this:

“Power: The ability to legally, financially, and physically coerce people and things to do what you want.”

Superman might be invulnerable, but Luthor controlled the politics of Metropolis. The justice system trusted him, the people respected him, and in a run of comics, Luther becomes the president of the United States. Superman has no control of trade agreements, business-labor relations, anti-discrimination laws, foreign policy, energy policy, building codes, education, or almost any of the factors that actually have meaning and determining force in people’s lives. But Luthor does. And he is known to use his political power in ways that enrich him, and end up hurting the people of the city. Leaving the world of comic books, a famous real estate owner in New York once wanted to evict an entire building of low-income people. Being unable to legally kick everybody out, he did everything in his ability to minimize repairs, tamper with the heating, and allow the building to fall into disarray. This was a use of power with the intent to hurt and coerce people against their will. While there was not a punch or a gunshot, this was an act of violence.

“Violence: A use of power to intentionally cause physical or psychological harm to a person, either through overt action, or deprivation of essential conditions.”

Intentions ought to matter. The person who punches another in the midsts of an altercation is guilty of violence, but we do not generally consider the boxer or football player to be violent, even if the sport is potentially concussive. This approach values consent. Consenting parties agree to a set of terms, and thus the results are acceptable. People can be persuaded, but not coerced. However, wealthy interests control the media, so maybe the distinction between coercion and persuasion becomes murky. Is it possible that consent could, as Noam Chomsky phrased it, be manufactured? That our thoughts and political feelings might not be entirely our own?

For example, how exactly did the USSR go from a “Leftist-Communist” state to a right-wing nationalist authoritarianism in one generation? How is it there is still disagreement and resentment about the American Civil War? How is it that the Freedom Fighters of Afghanistan in the 80s became terrorists in the 00s? How is it that Japan still denies its atrocities in China, but German renounced Nazism in one generation? How did the multicultural Yugoslavia break into genocide as soon as the Cold War ended? Why is it that every American child learns about the 6 million Jews killed by Hitler, but not the 10 million Congolese killed by Leopold II of Belgium, or the 1 million Armenians systematically killed by the Turks in 1917, which the United States still does not recognize? How is it that we have a population that routinely votes against its own interests? Is it possible that having control of the official images and narratives presented is a form of power? I say it is, and this is a form of power.

“Power: The ability to influence, persuade, and coerce people and things to do what you want.”

When a massive corporation like Nestle goes to the developing world to advertise an insufficient baby formula, threatening the lives of millions, I have to believe this is an act of violence. When the water pipes of Flint, Michigan are filled with lead, this is an act of violence. When the divorce laws in a country were so restrictive that an abused woman had almost no ability to leave a marriage without her husband admitting that he was at fault, this was an act of violence. When the wealthiest nation on earth allows a large portion of its children to go hungry, this is an act of violence. When you spend your entire life in fear of law enforcement, badgered by unending aggressions and denial of your humanity, this is an act of violence. In each of these cases, it is difficult to pin down the one person who is committing the act, “The Bad Guy,” if you will. Comic books and movies have taught us to look for the bad guy to find evil, but I believe this impulse misplaced.

Many organs come together to make a body. A human body is said to be emergent from our organs, that is, we are more than the sum of our parts. Along these lines, the social and economic functions of a house cannot be reduced to the properties of brick and mortar, and our social, political, and economic systems cannot, and must not, be understood as just a lot of people working together. Systems of oppression, degradation, selective control of messages, public memory, and so forth—these are all social systems of violence. Violent systems do not always have an evil genius—more over than not, they don’t—but they have the same effect of using power to influence, persuade, and coerce to the will of the powerful, at the expense of the well-being of the powerless.

It can be easy to say, I am not a violent person, because I treat everybody equally. But I benefit from a system of power that has excluded and overtly exploited many: the United States was obtained by a genocide of indigenous people, propped up by 250 years and 20 million people’s stolen labor (where do you think the textile mills of the north got their cotton from?), 175 years of cheap immigrant labor, and several wars of overt conquest (The Mexican-American war, the Spanish-American war, and the coup of Hawaii). We talk so much about how grateful we ought to be for what we have, but we rarely talk about what we did to make it this far. I enjoy treatment from a justice system and an education system that does not treat everybody equality. I might not have much power, but I benefit in many ways from the violence systems of power at play.

Despite this, I am not an amoralist: what we do, what we support, and how we treat individuals matters. We have a moral duty to help and empower others, because to empower is really a way of lessening pain. I encouraging people not to think of morality as a series of “side-constraints” for your own actions, but to really consider your whole life, and in what ways do you have power, exercise power, and benefit from violent systems. I do believe another world is possible—a world very different than the one we live in now—and this world begins within our immediate social systems.

Whose Body? A Look at Abortion

I realized I do not post enough divisive and political material on this blog, and as departure, I would like to write a little post on the moral case of abortion. More than any other political matter, abortion is perhaps the number one wedge issue in American politics. The election of Donald Trump, a man who broke from GOP orthodoxy in many other instances, was still able to win the votes of 80% of Evangelical Christians. I have to believe this voting bloc was almost exclusively motived by a desire to put a republican, any republican, into office in order to appoint the supreme court justices necessary to repeal 1973’s Roe v. Wade. Abortion is a very active bioethical issue, and the consequences of the debate are, quite literately, life or death.

I remember arriving early at my campus’ chapel before a service a few years ago. In talking to one of the other students, she mentioned that she was required to write a paper defending an argument for her German class. After asking her what she argued, she responded that she defended the pro-life position. “How did your argument go?” I asked in innocence. She provided me with the following argument:

P1 Death is the cessation of a beating heart.
P2 Inducing death to a non-consenting party is murder.
P3 An abortion stops a beating heart of a non-consenting party.
C Therefore, abortion is murder.

What my co-parisoner presented is a valid argument, meaning that the conclusion logically follows from the premises. However, this is not necessarily a sound argument, which would mean that the premises and conclusion are true. For example, I would take objection to premise 2: inducing death is not necessarily murder. Euthanasia can involve a non-consenting party, and I would not consider that murder.

Consider the “Famous Violinist” argument proposed by Judith Jarvis Thompson. She writes of a thought experiment where, due to some medical mishap, you have your bloodstream hooked up to that of a famous violinist. If you unplug yourself from the violinist’s body, they will die. Suppose that it will take one year for the organ transplant to take place, are you morally required to stay plugged into the blood circulation of the violinist? Most people seem think that do not have a moral duty to remain plugged into the system, even though it is certain that, should they unplug, the violinist will die.

Most people intuitively believe that in this case, you would not be required to stay plugged into the violinist: the violinist’s life or death is not as important as your supposed right to bodily autonomy. Some philosophers will reject Thomson’s thought experiment by distinguishing between killing and letting die. Unplugging from the violinist is “Letting Die,” but abortion is a medical procedure that involves gory details. I don’t find this distinction all that useful; letting the violinist die of sepsis would ultimately be a very unpleasant faith to induce, just as much as the procedure of a late-term abortion. This is a distinction without a difference, and as I mentioned earlier, I can imagine cases in which it is not murder to actively euthanize people in certain conditions (that is, of course, another issue).

Another objection to Thomson’s defense is that her case seems to imply a pregnancy through rape. If one is having consensual sex, shouldn’t one accept the risk and responsibility of a pregnancy? The common response is to flesh out the bodily-autonomy argument provided in the initial experiment, which is the bedrock for most pro-choice activism in the West:

P1 A person has the fundamental right to make decisions about their own body.
P2 A pregnancy is a feature of one’s own body.
C Therefore, one has the right to decide whether to carry or terminate a pregnancy.

Or more simply put, “My body, my choice.” This is a good, concise argument, but I do not believe it is really sufficent to settle the debate. In fact, part of the problem of the pro-life and pro-choice debate is how both sides are effectively making the same argument about bodily autonomy. Many pro-life supporters would consider framing their arguments like this:

P1 All persons have a fundamental right to life.
P2 Implied in a fundamental right to life is the right from being killed.
P3 A fetus is a person.
C Therefore, abortion violates the fundamental right to life of an unborn person.

Both parties believe their argument hinges on a fundamental right to autonomy, but they cannot agree as to when this right begins. Some will attack premise 3 of the pro-life argument, stating that a fetus is not a person, as a fetus does not have the level of social conditioning and self-awareness to be considered a person (even if the fetus is a homo sapian). The problem then becomes, when exactly does a fetus become a person? The line is not clear at all.

Let me present an unpopular view: the best argument for the permissibility of abortion is a utilitarian argument, not a right-based argument. There is no universally, or even majority, answer as to when personhood begins, or to what one’s fundamental rights are (not legal rights, but human rights). Rather, I would consider consequences of an unwanted pregnancy:

P1 Pregnancy & the act of birthing has a tremendous physical, financial, and lifestyle effect on a person.
P2 The fetus is a sentient being, but has a fraction of the awareness of the person carrying them.
P3 An unwanted pregnancy & act of birthing has a much greater negative effect on the pregnant person than the fetus.
P4 It is morally permissibility to inflict pain on a creature if it is the only step necessary to relieve yourself of a much greater and irreversible pain.
P5 Abortion will relieve an unwanted pregnancy & act of birthing, while causing pain and killing a being with very minor sentience.
C Abortion to relieve an unwanted pregnancy is morally permissible.

As some have pointed out, giving up children to adopting is an alternative to parenthood, but abortion is the only alternative to pregnancy after one has already conceived. Of course some might claim, as I cited earlier, that consensual sex carries with it an implicit responsibility for any children. And while I can imagine how some would find that vision attractive, I maintain that the volume of pain and stress from an unwanted pregnancy alone overwhelms any appeal to the pain of a barely-sentient fetus. “This violates the ‘Natural Order’ of things!” I could imagine one saying. Yes, it does. And so does using antiseptics, vaccines, and cesarian sections. Actually, maybe this is the natural order of things: chimpanzees use sticks to remove ants from logs, beavers build dams, and human beings control their pregnancies with a variety of contraceptives and surgical practices.

Can God be Proven with Logic Alone?

In the 11th century, St. Anselm, the bishop of Canterbury, released a bombshell of medieval philosophy, an idea so powerful, we are still discussing it today: The Ontological Argument for the Existence of God. Ontology means, “The Study of Being,” and the goal of Anselm’s argument is to demonstrate that the very idea of God is such that God must exist, by definition. The argument is as follows:

1. God is the greatest being imaginable
2. A being that necessarily exists [it cannot be possible for the being to not exist] is greater than a being that just so happens to exist
3. A being that exists in one’s imagination, but not in reality is not as great as the being that exists in both our imagination and reality necessarily
4. Thus, if we are imagining the greatest being imaginable, than we are imagining something that necessarily exists in both our imagination and reality
5. Therefore, God exists

Just about nobody is actually convinced by this argument, and yet, for hundreds of years, people have been trying to figure out what exactly is wrong with it. The strongest criticism would come in the 18th century by enlightenment philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant. While writing independently of each other, they both criticized two pieces of the argument: the notion of necessary existence, and the notion that existence is a predicate.

Problem of Necessity: David Hume would argue that there are two kinds of truths, truths about the relationship between ideas (which would be things like logic and mathematics), and truths about the relationships between facts (which includes science, geography, history, and most other fields of study). For something to be logically necessity is a truth found in the relationship between ideas, but not in terms of facts. It is necessary that all bachelors be unmarried men, that all mothers have children, that all veterans were in the military, but this is because of the definition, not because of facts. Meanwhile, facts like, “Pierre is the Capitol of South Dakota” is not a necessary truth, because it’s possible that Rapid City could have been selected to be the capitol, it is not true by definition. Thus, whether something exists is a matter of fact, and cannot be resolved by definition.

Existence is not a Predicate: Kant went even further, attacking the notion that existence can be a predicate of an subject. Predicates are the qualifying terms placed around a subject: ice is COLD, a SHORT BALD man ROBBED us. To say, “God is the GREATEST BEING IMAGINABLE” is to tag God with a predicate of “Greatest being imaginable,” but to add, “God, the greatest being imaginable, exists” does not add anything to the notion of God as the greatest being imaginable, it only indicate where the notion can be found (exclusively in our minds, or in reality, too?)

Many people would consider Kant’s response to be the final word on the matter, but in the 20th century, a new discovery was turning the world of logic upside down: Modality and Possible World Semantics. With new tools in his kit, philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga set out to make the “Victorious” Ontological Argument, working this out:

1. God is a coherent, “maximally excellent” concept, and could exist in a possible world (All coherent concepts exist in a possible world, according to modal logic, even in they don’t exist in our “Actual” world)
2. The greatest possible being would be maximally excellent in all possible worlds
3. A maximally excellent being that exists in all possible worlds possibly exists
4. A necessary being is one that exists in all possible worlds, and it is possible that God exists in all possible worlds; it is possible that God is necessary
5. By Axiom S5 (a controversial axiom of modal logic which states that if something is possible, it is necessarily possible), God is necessary in at least one possible world, meaning that God must be necessary in all possible worlds
6. Therefore, God, the maximally excellent and maximally great being, exists in our world, necessarily

Once again, not many people are going to be convinced by this argument. While the logic is valid as long as one holds to Axiom S5, and accepts possible world semantics (not everybody does, WVO Quine is a good example of somebody who did not), you could run this argument in the negative, positing that it is possibly necessary that no God exists. Plantinga even acknoledges this, and recognizes that the force of his argument is to defend that the concept of God is a rationally acceptable, rather than that the Ontological Argument is a “Slam Dunk” proof.

In my observation, the greatest difficulty in any ontological argument that the concept of God is even coherent to begin with. For example, Christian Orthodoxy holds that God is Omniscience, Omnipotent, Omnipresent, and Omnibenevolent. However, some strands of Christian thought (Open Theism) have argued that either God does not have immediate knowledge of the future, or God self-restricts knowledge of the future. Some schools of Judaism have questioned if God is really omnipotent, or if omnipotence is even a coherent concept.

Ultimately, the legacy of the Ontological Argument is in how it leads logicians to consider how their skills can be used for devotional purposes.

What’s Possible With Possible Worlds?

In the philosophy of language, talk of how things might be, or how things ought to be, is called modality. Imagine all the times we qualify a statement, by saying things like, “I hope that X,” “I believe that X,” “It is acceptable to do X,” all of those modifying clauses are called modal operators.

The most famous kind of modality is called alethic modality, which takes this form:

–It is possible that X
–It is contingently true that X
–It is necessary that X
–It is impossible that X

Here comes a challenge: when we make a modal statement, we seem to be referring to a fact about the universe, but it is not obvious where we find the fact of an unactualized possibility. Remember in high school the one stoner friend you had that said, “Oh, I could get straight-As if I tried?” Here, she is referring to a possible state of affairs, and is making a statement of contingent truth: If she tried hard, then it would be the case that she would get a straight-A report card. Most people would accept that this is a true statement, but its different than our intuitions about most statements of fact, because there is no available state of affairs to compare the statement to. If our friend said, “My backpack is pink,” the truth of that statement is generally understood to be relative to if the backpack IS ACTUALLY PINK. So how do we know it is true that if she tried hard, she actually would get all As? I tried hard in high school, and I didn’t get all As, this doesn’t seem like a given, but it might be true, regardless.

Or consider this, suppose I got into an argument with somebody about climate change. “Climate change is a serious issue that could threaten the survival of the human species,” I say. My opponent looks directly at me and says, “No, that’s impossible. God will not let the end of the world happen before the Second Coming. We have nothing to worry about except the sanctity of our souls.” This is not an argument about science, it is an argument about metaphysical possibility: I hold human extinction to be a possible outcome of climate change, while my opponent holds that Divine Provenience makes such an event impossible. How, then, do we make sense of modality?

One solution, and perhaps the most eccentric move in all of Analytic Philosophy, is to do what American philosopher David Lewis did, and propose modal realism. Lewis argued that there is an infinite number of real, really-real possible universes, containing every single variable and distinction possible. Thus, when we make talk of how things are possible, what we are doing is saying, there is a universe where it is the case that Jill Stein won the presidential election, where elephants live in the great plains of North Dakota, and where gravity is half as strong as it is in our world. These are all possibilities, and there is a world for them. Conversely, when we speak of impossibility (e.g. there are no four-sided triangles), we are saying there is no possible universe with a four-sided triangle, and so forth.

Modal realism is a very strange idea, and many philosophers dislike it because it is a very cluttered ontology, it seems to violate Occam’s Razor. Lewis would argue back that, although his theory is very quantitatively inflated, it is qualitatively reductive: instead of trying to make sense of modality in terms of psychology or fictions, modality is a fact.

Consider mathematics: many philosophers and mathematicians will accept that mathematical entities like numbers and sets are real things. They are part of the universe, and we are discovering rather than inventing them. Outer space aliens would come to the same mathematical theories as us. And yet, mathematical entities are utterly different than the sorts of entities that scientists study, they are non-empirical, non-causal, and seemingly non-temporal. If we can accept that there are different kinds of infinities, some larger than others, is it that much of a jump to say that an infinite number of causally-isolated universes?

Modality makes truth much more complicated. Consider news sources: a cable news channel can say, “Sources are telling us that the democratic party is rigged,” “Leading expert argues that household cleaners cause autism,” “Could [it be possible that] Ted Cruz be the Zodiac Killer?”None of these statements are strictly false, because the modal clause redirects their truth condition. This is how the media can spread outright misinformation without technically lying.

David Lewis is a controversial figure in contemporary metaphysics, and many people have challenged his flagship idea. However, Lewis vehemently defended his project, and offered perhaps one of the greatest lines in analytic philosophy against his critics:

“I don’t know how to refute an incredulous stare.”