We need philosophy to counter our desire for certitude

This is the fifth and—I promise–last in a series of posts on philosophy’s purpose.

When I teach philosophy at Stevens, I prime the pump by asking, What is philosophy for? After assuring my students that there are lots of possible answers, I give them mine: philosophers protect us from our deep-rooted need to be sure about what we are and ought to be.

In previous columns of this series, I’ve considered whether philosophy is a truth-seeking method, martial art, ethical guide or art form. Philosophy is all these things, but to my mind it is, or should be, primarily an instrument of doubt, which counters our terrible tendency toward certitude.

David Chalmers, in “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?”, acknowledges that philosophers are better at toppling than erecting truth claims. He is dissatisfied with this outcome, which he calls “negative progress,” because he can’t abandon the quest for truth.

But philosophers should embrace their role as wrecking balls. Demolition is a noble calling, given all the harm caused by know-it-all-ness. And by harm I mean everything from over-prescription of antidepressants to genocide.

Let’s call this critical pursuit “negative philosophy.” The allusion to negative theology is deliberate. Negative theology exalts God by rejecting all descriptions of Him. In the same way, negative philosophy honors Truth by skewering all expressions of it.

Socrates invented negative philosophy–and inadvertently demonstrated why we need it. He defines wisdom as knowing how little you know, and his parable of the cave warns that we’re prisoners of our own delusions.

But the old know-nothing is really a know-it-all. He believes—he knows—that he has escaped the cave and seen the True, Good and Beautiful blazing in all their glory. Others can see the light too, if they follow his lead, and together the enlightened elite will rule the benighted masses. We need negative philosophy to save us from our saviors.

Philosophers have labored mightily to inoculate us against religious dogmatism. Spinoza, Voltaire and Kant argued for an impersonal God consistent with science and reason, and Nietzsche pronounced God dead. Today, science is our dominant mode of knowledge, with good reason, because it has given us deep insights into and power over nature.

But some scientists, intoxicated by success, claim that science is revealing the Truth about, well, everything. They also overstate religion’s evils and downplay the damage done in the name of “reason.” Over the past century faith in pseudo-scientific ideologies—from Marxism and eugenics to free-market capitalism—has caused far more destruction than religious zealotry.

Some philosophers have reacted to science’s ascendancy by denying that science achieves durable truth. Others have gone to the opposite extreme, becoming public-relations shills for science and denigrating alternate modes of knowledge. While avoiding either excessive skepticism or servility, philosophers should call out scientists for overreaching, especially when they promote simplistic, deterministic theories of human nature.

Negative philosophy most resembles negative theology when it reminds us that our words and concepts fall far short of reality. Paul Feyerabend, whom I once interviewed, ridiculed the idea that scientists can “figure out” the world. “What they figured out,” Feyerabend said, “is one particular response to their actions, and this response gives this universe, and the reality that is behind this is laughing! ‘Ha ha! They think they have found me out!’”

Negative philosophy can be tricky. Philosophers must doubt themselves, but not so much that they despair and seek jobs at Goldman Sachs. They must also avoid skepticism so extreme that it enables fascism and the wholesale rejection of science. They must try to make the world a better place, even though they probably won’t.

One final comment: After my students read the parable of the cave, I ask: Are you in the cave right now? Answers vary. Some say college is helping them get out of the cave, others joke that college is pushing them further into the cave.

The gloomy ones, with whom I identify, say if you escape one cave, you just end up in another. To console them I say: Knowing you’ll never escape the cave is a little depressing, but it’s better than not knowing, right?

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings, which belongs to the College of Arts & Letters. This column is adapted from one originally published on his ScientificAmercan.com bog, “Cross-check.”