Sunday, May 18, 2014

Philosophy, What is it Good For?

I'm a big fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson. Recently he made some disparaging remarks about philosophy, or more specifically students wasting time with philosophy as a discipline over proper sciences.

If you're interested in what he said it's all right HERE.

He's probably right. There are too many people studying philosophy. What we need are more engineers, chemists, and biologists. That's hard science. That's science with tangible results.

I mean how do you even get tangible results from philosophy? And even if you managed it, how could it possibly help us? It's always crap like this...

Philosopher: What is a human?

Scientist: That's ridiculous question. A human is a human.

Philosopher: Define it. What makes us human and not tarantulas?

Scientist: Humans are mammals. We have warm blood, our offspring don't come from eggs, and we produce milk to feed them. We also only have four limbs!

Philosopher: What makes us human and not dogs?

Scientist: This is silly. We walk on two legs, aren't covered in hair, and can grip stuff with our hands.

Philosopher: Chimpanzees, while not exclusively bipedal, can walk distances on two legs, their entire bodies aren't covered in hair and they can grip things with their hands.

Scientist: Well then. We can talk. We can communicate complex things with language, we're really smart.

Philosopher: Fair enough. That eliminates all other animals that we know of. Oh, but based on that description is a severely mentally disabled person, who is also confined to a wheel chair, a human?

Scientist: What?

Philosopher: He can neither talk, walk, and isn't very smart. Based on your description he isn't a human. Should we deny him the rights of other humans? Treat him as we treat animals?

Scientist: No, of course not. Who would think he isn't human?

Philosopher: One hundred or more years ago most humans would have treated him like an animal and considered him sub-human. You needn't go back even that far to a time when the color of a person's skin denied them the same treatment as other humans. Many will agree this continues to this day. So, with all the tools of modern science; define a human and why we should grant all humans the same rights.

Scientist: Alright then. Fine. DNA, that's what makes us human.

Philosopher: But we don't all have the exact same DNA. Mine is different from yours. On a purely scientific basis if we compared our DNA there would be differences. Eye color, skin tone, etc. We are not the same. What percentage of difference in DNA is acceptable for one to be considered human? And once defined, what of mutations, one of the driving forces behind evolution? A person born who is now an additional .001% deviant from the rest of humans, is she now no longer human? Should she no longer be afforded the same treatment?

Scientist: Is it because we have a soul?

Philosopher: Don't be ridiculous. Anyway, let's abandon that difficult question for now and ask a really simple question. How do you define gender?

Scientist: By the role in reproduction and the genitals. Males fertilize the eggs and have a penis. Females produce the eggs and have a vagina. And before you get clever, those born with both organs are hermaphrodites. We've done this. We've taken care of it. We even have different levels of hermaphroditism based on whether the animal can still reproduce.

Philosopher: So someone born with a vagina who is sterile, either through some natural force, like exposure to radiation, or is born with an abnormality who cannot produce eggs is no longer female?

Scientist: No, I didn't say that. She should produce eggs, but something went wrong. So, she's still a female.

Philosopher: And the same for a man who loses his testicles, or they never functioned to begin with?

Scientist: Yes. His role should have been to fertilize eggs, but something went wrong.

Philosopher: So is it naturally assigned or desire to want to fulfill that role?

Scientist: What?

Philosopher: Someone born with male sexual organs, that function perfectly, but feels he was meant to be a woman. He can never produce eggs, but he has his penis and testicles removed and replaced with something approximating a vagina. Is he a woman now?

Scientist: I don't--no--wait, yes.

Philosopher: Why?

Scientist: Because... if you--no--ok, saying "DNA" and "reproducing those results in a lab" isn't going to get me out of this one. You can have questions like this. I'll continue trying to figure out how to cure cancer with formulas and repeatable results.

This is a rather pompous example, but yes, philosophy has a purpose. Maybe not pondering what is the sound of one hand clapping or whether God exists, but asking questions that are currently beyond the reach of scientific analysis still needs to be done. Philosophers have always played a part in shaping our understanding of ourselves, the universe, and how we relate to one another. We do need philosophy and philosophers, but I will agree, not quite as many as we have currently studying it.

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