I run an extracurricular philosophy group for high school students. It operates on a rotating enrollment, integrating veterans with newcomers, which provides an opportunity for me to examine how people with different experiences and encounters with philosophy understand the subject/topic/practice/exercise.
I am especially proud of one activity: having the veteran students lead the new ones in an introductory lecture. The lecturer poses a question, the same question I posed to my first student and subsequent students have continued to pose to the newcomers: what do you think philosophers do?
I like this question because it generates a set of responses similar to those I receive from people at cocktail parties. The following is a list of reactions in no particular order:
- Someone is genuinely interested in philosophy because they either took a philosophy course in college or they just read a book or column by a philosopher.
- They feign interest, perhaps asking what philosophers I like, then move on.
- They describe how their particular field has made philosophy irrelevant.
- They scoff at me for being full of empty aphorisms.
- They deride me for being a logic chopper (i.e., someone who can’t resist pointing out a false analogy, or appeal to authority etc.).
- They pity me for spending my academic life in the clouds when I could be doing something much more effective.
Luckily, the kids I work with do not ever give the first three responses — at least not cynically. Likely because they have never read philosophy, or if they did they didn’t know it, or they haven’t had time to develop a chipped shoulder. Some students who know a little philosophy — perhaps they read some Buddhism — will say things like, “doing philosophy is realizing that you’re not in traffic, but that you are traffic.” I like hearing these clever responses, especially when made innocently, though I often worry such innocence will one day turn to scoffing. Others will say that philosophers think about life and what it means. Few will ever say “logic chopper,” but some will say that philosophers try to figure everything out, which is close enough in meaning to “logic chopper,” but, again, more innocent.
Of course all six of the above capture some aspect of the job of a philosopher, and my students are not far off either. But, as we philosophers like to say, the job is not reducible to any one of the caricatures, though each represents one part of the endeavor.
Since my students and I have the hour to discuss philosophy, I present the topic to them in the following way:
The first thing philosophers do is to ask a question. Really any question, whether it is part of the philosophical academic discipline or not. For example: Why is there hair on human bodies?
The question is obviously more relevant to biology, nevertheless I encourage the students to try to approach it from a completely fresh perspective, as though they were living in ancient Greece — interestingly the pre-socratic Greek Philosopher Anaxagoras poses this very question — and had no idea about biology, or the other sciences.
Then philosophers answer the question: Because there is hair inside our bodies.
This response may seem crude, but it is an answer nonetheless. And with any answer to any question we should either be able to show why it is right or why it is wrong. So, the students are asked to either support or reject this answer.
The common response is “that just makes no sense!” While it may not make sense and it surely flies in the face of contemporary dermatology, I stress that it is their job as budding philosophers to demonstrate why it doesn’t make sense, again with only the tools available to a pre-socratic philosopher.
But how on Earth does one do this? Well, this leads perfectly to the next step in the philosopher’s routine.
Philosophers create an argument. This step always stumps them. For what is an argument? Invariably someone responds that an argument is a way to persuade other people. But this is an aspect of an argument — hopefully at least — it merely describes the desired result of the argument and not the argument itself.
I then present the following argument:
1. If we have hair, then we have hair inside of us.
2. We have hair.
Therefore, we have hair inside of us.
This argument has premises, it has a logical structure (similar to something from geometry class), and it has a conclusion. The conclusion is the same as our answer to the original question, so if we have constructed a good argument, then our answer should be supported! But how do philosophers go about determining whether an argument is good or not?
We need to find out if the logic is valid, and if the premises are true. If both are the case, then we have a true conclusion.
First, philosophers examine the logic. Is it valid? The structure of the argument is:
If X, then Y
Yes it is valid, and we call this logical form modus ponens.
Then philosophers examine the premises. Are they true? Premise 2 is true, we do in fact have hair. But is premise 1 true?
To recap, we have so far asked a question. We have also examined the logic, and thought about the meaning of the statements. It was easy to see if premise 2 is true: we just look at our bodies. Is there hair? Yes. But how might we determine if the if/then statement is true?
In order for an if/then statement to be true, it cannot ever be the case that the antecedent is true and the consequent is false, or rather there can be no counter-examples. That is, there cannot be a scenario where we grow hair, but there is not hair inside of us. If there is such a scenario, then the if/then statement is false, and if one of our premises is false then our argument is false.
Now suppose, that we find out that the hair doesn’t grow out of our bodies, but rather lives in little pods on the surface of our skin. Well our premise would be false, because the hair is not inside of us! So my students can either accept that this argument is false, and either give a different answer or try another argument, or they can create an argument to support this premise — for I remind them that a conclusion supported by valid logic and true premises is true. Anaxagoras, our pre-socratic friend, reasoned the following way to support his conclusion:
1a. If we have hair, then the food we eat must have hair in it.
1b. If the food we eat has hair in it, then we have hair inside of us.
Therefore, 1. If we have hair, then we have hair inside of us.
2.We have hair.
Therefore, we have hair inside of us.
Again, we know that premise 2 is true, but now rather than evaluating premise 1 for counter-examples, we need to examine premises 1a and 1b. If either of those premises is false, i.e., they have counter-examples, then the conclusion, premise 1, is also false. As you know, it is fairly easy, given our current understanding of biology, to find at least 1 counter-example to either of these premises. However, this isn’t necessarily the end of the matter, since we can always develop more and more premises to support those other premises we found counter-examples for. My students immediately see that philosophy can become quite complex, with more premises devised to support even more premises with counter-examples.
This process encompasses everything philosophers do. They examine logic, think about whether the premises are true, and try to imagine counter-examples to if/then statements. However, at this point a student always says: “well why would we do this when we could just look at it scientifically?”
Rather than butt-heads with the student, I encourage her in the following way: “as we move on through the semester/summer/year, I want you to think about the issues we are discussing, and consider how we might answer them scientifically. If you can show that all the questions we will ask can be answered scientifically, I will make it my life’s goal to ensure you are accepted into the best PhD program in the country and you’ll be wildly famous.” And though she thinks I am joking, I assure her that I am not.
Then a student will ask: “well how on earth can simply examining premises and thinking up counter-examples really do anything?” This is precisely the question facing philosophy departments across the country. Developing a good argument in response to this question will grant someone fame and glory in the philosophy world.
Still, it may seem like this process over-simplifies what philosophers actually do. For we are only talking about growing hair, which is not a terribly important question. Those philosophers who research for years, or even decades, and write books hundreds of pages long must be doing more than just posing premises and thinking up counter-examples, right?
Not really. Here are two examples, two very famous examples from contemporary philosophy: (1) Philosophical zombies and (2) The Chinese Room.
College students taking philosophy will probably have heard of these before; they may seem like the quintessential example of wacky, though perhaps brilliant, ideas concocted by some crazy philosopher.
It is true that these ideas are wacky. But they start to seem not only relevant but ground breaking when you begin to think about the context in which they were developed. For these ideas are counter-examples to other arguments. Not only are they counter-examples, but the premises they (potentially) demonstrate to be false are critical to our understanding of the world.
For those unfamiliar with these ideas, here are the basics:
Philosophical zombies are beings which are physically identical to you, me and everyone else down to the spin of their quarks, yet are not conscious. What!!??
The Chinese Room is a room into which someone inserts a character from the Chinese alphabet, then a person inside the box takes the character, examines it, looks through a Chinese-English dictionary to find its English equivalent. Yet the man in the room does not understand Chinese. What!!??
What many people — including students, non philosophers, and perhaps even some philosophers — miss is that these ideas are counter-examples to some very basic intuitions many people might hold about topics which are absolutely central to everyone’s life.
The philosophical zombie is a counter example to the following premise:
- If something has a functioning brain, then it is conscious.
That is, the philosophical zombie has a functioning brain — it is doing everything you and I are doing right now, so its brain must be working, but it has no consciousness. I have the sense that there is something it is like to be me, and you have a sense that there is something it is like to be you, right? Well imagine that the “something it is like to be you” isn’t something at all, there is nothing it is like to be you, yet physically all the same events are happening — your eyes are scanning these words, your brain is processing the information, the sound waves around you are rumbling your ear drums, but there is no consciousness of any of it.
Obviously it is difficult to describe this idea. But if it is true, then it follows that something could have a functioning brain and not be conscious. Suppose this premise is false. Some have argued that consciousness, or the sense of being you, is something present in this world, but perhaps not in another. This means that consciousness is a unique property, and is therefore not reducible to physics. This opens questions about animal sentience, the nature of artificial intelligence, and the fundamental facts of the universe, among others.
This idea, which has ramifications for the greatest questions ever posed, is simply a counter-example. There is no scientific experiment or confirmation of it, yet it is incredibly powerful and influential on how we understand the world.
The Chinese Room is also a counter-example, but to a different premise:
2. If something seems to understand language, then it is intelligent.
Imagine having a conversation with someone who is speaking perfect grammar, is engaged, and has brilliant things to say, yet is not intelligent. That is, suppose it is pure luck that the person you are encountering is making all the right sounds, inflections, and utterances; or that it is running a computer program taking your responses as inputs and through an extremely powerful computing mechanism generates interesting responses. Is this enough to suggest that the thing is intelligent?
Some philosophers argue that examples like this show that such a computer is not intelligent in the same way we consider a human to be intelligent. This counter-example was developed in the 1970’s when philosophers were discussing the future of computers. Most people at the time argued that artificial intelligence was right around the corner, yet every prediction about when we would have intelligent computers was proven wrong, in the sense that it never happened. This counter-example explains why those predictions were wrong, while also shining some light on the nature of intelligence. For when IBM’s Watson competed on Jeopardy, and won, it seemed strange to think of the computer as intelligent. It just didn’t seem like the right description of what was happening. Gauging intelligence requires something more than just being able to answer questions correctly. This counter-example captured that intuition before the development of such a machine. That is, we knew that the computer wouldn’t be intelligent before even building it, because we could examine the premises supporting the argument that it would be intelligent, and developed counter-examples to those premises.
This is what philosophers do. We try to understand the world based on premises and conclusions. And when we are successful, we are able to realize truths about the world that are crucial to understanding what happens, what could happen in the future, and even what happened in the past.
I tell my students to try applying this method to your life, as Socrates suggests that “the unexamined life if not worth living.” What does it mean to live an examined life? Write down your answers to questions like: what should I do with my life? How should I spend my money? Then create arguments to support them. Check the logic, and consider potential counterexamples to the premises. Imagine that the premises upon which you have built your life, or are building your life are false. How would you decide what to do with your life? Should you become a doctor or a lawyer? A scientist or an engineer? A computer programmer, or an animal rights activist? This is what philosophers do. They check the logic, check the truth, and try to make sure that there are no counter-examples. One might ask: is it possible for there to be an argument, or a way of life without counter-examples? Now that’s a philosophical question.
Roger Hunt is training as a psychoanalyst in Boston. He studied philosophy at Boston University, and coaches high school students for the Boston High School Ethics Bowl, which he helped found. He is also on the editorial board for Questions: Philosophy for Children, which publishes philosophy essays by students from kindergarten through high school.