Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Philosophy is a step above religion

And not a large step either. But the more I think about it, and the more I observe various cults springing up around philosophical ideas, the title's statement just seems true to me.

Does this pit philosophy against science? Yes, I believe it does. That also means philosophies, like religions, fall under the same rules as science. In fact, perhaps the earliest known scientific experiment is ironically in the bible. See the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal. Since I can't sum up nearly as well as the summation from where I first came across this several months ago, I'll quote directly:

The people of Israel are wavering between Jehovah and Baal, so Elijah announces that he will conduct an experiment to settle it - quite a novel concept in those days! The priests of Baal will place their bull on an altar, and Elijah will place Jehovah's bull on an altar, but neither will be allowed to start the fire; whichever God is real will call down fire on His sacrifice. The priests of Baal serve as control group for Elijah - the same wooden fuel, the same bull, and the same priests making invocations, but to a false god. Then Elijah pours water on his altar - ruining the experimental symmetry, but this was back in the early days - to signify deliberate acceptance of the burden of proof, like needing a 0.05 significance level. The fire comes down on Elijah's altar, which is the experimental observation. The watching people of Israel shout "The Lord is God!" - peer review.
--Eliezer Yudkowsky

I just reread the linked page--it's a fantastic post. What it boils down to is that religion has made claims of many different things, but science has chipped away at it and now thanks to hard facts religion has nowhere to turn but to ethics or other very, very subjective things (like "experiences").

It seems to be the same case for philosophy. Philosophies haven't always just been about answering the questions "What is knowledge?", "Is knowledge possible?", and "What is man?"; it has made claims of the scientific nature as well. Prior to Newton, gravity was philosophized as the natural tendency of objects to fall to the ground. Prior to genetic engineering, it was philosophized that nature could not be improved. Prior to modern biology, it was philosophized that life was too complex to ever be understood entirely, but people made claims about it anyway.

Where is modern philosophy at? It's still trying to answer those Wrong Questions. Philosophy is in a state of continually asking "If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around, does it make a sound?" Science already gave an answer to that long ago: "The question is a Wrong one. If 'sound' is the vibration of air, then yes, it did make a sound. If 'sound' is the auditory experience of a human brain, then no, it did not make a sound because no brain was around to hear it. Watch your terms next time you ask questions."

I'm thinking philosophy got to its present state because science has taken everything else away from it, like religion. It's really difficult for philosophers to make any statements about the mind, because we have psychologists (well beyond the days of Freud) and neurologists who have discovered hard truths about our brains. Instead, when philosophers do speak of the mind, they must invoke the very mysterious "consciousness" concept, which itself is poorly defined. "Consciousness" may indeed be a Wrong Question, and if it hasn't been solved already by someone out there then I expect a neurologist/psychologist will solve it in the near future. It may be in the same room as "free will", which has already been shown as a wrong question, and dissolved into non-confusing parts to answer the question "Why do I think I have free will?"

Of course, philosophy also has morality and government to grow off of, just like religion. (Though religion is currently in serious trouble with the government aspects.) Those are still fuzzy areas in the science arena, simply because there's just not enough great evidence. That doesn't mean there's no evidence--I find the idea of trend analysis over large periods of human history for moral insight to be quite good and powerful--just that there isn't the same kind of evidence for, say, General Relativity. Wait a while, though, and I think we'll get there. I hope we don't have to go through more monarchies though to show it's a bad system.

Philosophy can grab atheists and bind them into tighter dogmas than the religion they escaped, or the religions they've heard of but never subscribed to. Philosophy can be seductive, and it can feel like questions are being answered and lives are being made better. I don't think the True Atheist state (I'll write about this in detail some time) is very natural for humans, and so it is easy to slide back into a bad system if one is not always questioning one's beliefs as well as those of others. Some atheists even fall, if only subconsciously, for one of the Great Lies of Religion that morality is impossible without religion. Then here comes some philosophy preaching a certain set of morals, and they latch on.

Philosophers generally seem more intelligent than theists, too, another trap for a would-be atheist. This also makes them annoying, because it's more difficult to refute their arguments that are intuitively wrong. Religion is absurdly easy to mock and disprove (in the scientific sense which is the best humans can do), but philosophy is a little harder. Hence I think it's just a small step above religion, and I think it too is dying.

Sure, philosophers will go on claiming that reductionism or other tools of scientific reasoning are mere philosophies, just like theists will go on claiming that a belief in the light speed limit is on par with belief in a deity, but that's just semantics. The real meat of philosophy, and of religion, is old and rotten. The human mind is queued up to be explained to the extent fundamental physics are, and really once that happens all bets are off when proposing ideas about the reality of humanity.

Of course, philosophy can still be fun. Just don't try to take it too seriously, and when you can, defer to hard science.

Posted on 2009-11-24 by Jach

Tags: philosophy, rationality, religion


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