I’ve recently been working on a major article, for which I’ve interviewed something like 30 different people. Obviously you do some investigation before you set up a meeting, so you have a reasonable expectation that it’s going to be interesting. And indeed, most for this story were. All but one: with a philosopher. I actually walked out of the room early using the words, “I mustn’t take up any more of your time.”
One sign that an interview is not going well is that, instead of explaining something more clearly, your subject tells you to read their book. This happened here. I just couldn’t nail down how what he was saying related to the picture I had been piecing together talking to scientists and engineers. And he didn’t seem to want to help me out.
I think the problem may have been on my side, and it’s one I’ve had with philosophers before. I can’t understand what they’re talking about because I don’t feel you can pin it down to something real. I trained as a physicist, so I’m always looking for a reality check for any premise in an argument. In philosophy, there often isn’t one… and that’s not considered to be any kind of drawback!
One example of something that has preoccupied some philosophers but seems ridiculous to me is the so-called philosophical zombie, a thought experiment that’s used to discuss the philosophy of mind. The idea is that you have something that behaves in every way as if it’s conscious, feels pain, etc., but in fact is not really conscious. Given this scenario, they then discuss what it means about nature of consciousness and where it resides (is it in the body? in the soul? can machines have it? etc.). Many philosopher hours have been spent thinking about and discussing this.
My reaction? Where are these zombies and how do we know they don’t feel anything? And if they don’t exist then what exactly do we think we can learn from them?
I count philosophers among my friends and have great respect for many of them, but am also suspicious of their field. Physics, indeed science, is (eventually) all about being able to prove and test things. There are areas of philosophy, however, that seem to be about taking a premise and building a theory on top of it, with no attempt to try to get to any kind of ‘truth’. I call this a castle in the air, because there is no ‘route to ground’.
Of course, we have thought experiments in science. But somewhere along the line there always emerges something that can be tested in the real world, allowing the theory to succeed or fail. Without we couldn’t make progress. I’d love to know how philosophers manage.
Originally posted on Sunny Bains unedited.