Wednesday, November 9, 2022

The Philosophy Cliff: Why Applied Philosophy Matters ... Sometimes

Here's an age-old question about the field of philosophy - why is it useful? 

Can't we go about living our lives, studying the "real" and "more useful" sciences, and be perfectly content? Do the questions of philosophy actually matter? Rather than a simplistic yes or no, my preferred answer is to think of philosophy like checking the air pressure in the tires of a car. 

A person can spend years never checking, or even knowing about, how inflated their car tires are. It might cause certain problems, even severe ones, but it's rarely complete and outright failure. It's the bliss, and danger, of ignorance. The reverse of never checking is checking every day. If we expend all day worrying and checking about air pressure, we'd never even drive the car. It therefore seems, arguably, most sensible to be aware that tires run on air pressure inflation, ask what problems might crop up, check in occasionally, and then otherwise mostly not worry about it.

That, in essence, is how I view philosophy. Except, unlike air pressure, we're not as fully sure about what life runs on or how it works. We have some models and theories, some that seem quite useful and correct. But also, in other places, much less pure certainly (more on that in a moment). These fundamental aspects surely affect us. But, like the car driver, we can also just go about our day, driving the car, living our life, and not even check the air pressure. Not checking may result in some avoidable problems, but it's not, per se, outright essential. Foolhardy perhaps and even blissful at times. 

A brief note on certainty - something doesn't need to be 100% certain to be useful. Many medical drugs, for example, work on correlation alone. Person takes pill. Person, on average, gets better. We don't know why. That might cause problems. But it also might be fine, and so we sometimes just "drive the car" and ignore the underlying questions we could ask.

A main goal of this blog is to show that we can sometimes dive deeper, check questions at the level of more fundamental level of "how this all works", and by doing start avoid certain problems of varying levels of severity. 

I call this the philosophy cliff.

We can live some, or ever all, of our lives at the top level of the cliff. It's possible that the clifftop level is where we seem to naturally exist. We don't eat food by asking fundamental questions about it. We realize we're hungry and we go grab and eat what we understand to be food. That, to me, is living up on the cliff. Sometimes though, we go and check what food is and what food means to us. Questions include...

Where does our food comes from? Is it nutritious? Is it sustainable? Is there suffering along the way? What even counts as "food"? How much health is "full health"?

Some of those answers might affect life at the top of the cliff. Some might not. It might vary from person to person (under the Fundamental Principle of Human Uniqueness). Also note that those questions about food cover a wide range of knowledge, at varying levels of known and unknown, and are knowledge about very different types of things, from chemicals and atoms to economic systems and core human values.

There are almost endless questions about food, depending on how far down the philosophy cliff you go. It is said that all science and knowledge starts as philosophy - as attempts to dive down the cliff underlying the reality of living life. Almost everything atop the cliff - even seemingly certain things, are full of questions if you probe deep enough.

So a question becomes - how much do we probe? How often do we check the tires for the air, metaphorically speaking?

My perspective is that, broadly speaking, a great many avoidable problems occur because we don't check "down the cliff" nearly enough. We take certain concepts for granted and think of them as real and true in our atop the cliff life. A perfect example of this is this recent report about how the US reports on the national crime rate. Consider this quote (edited and condensed for clarity and brevity)...

"We generally talk about - crime is up or crime is down. It's referring to sort of this small core set of what the FBI calls index one crimes. That's murder, robbery, rape, aggravated assault, larceny, burglary and auto theft. Sometimes arson, sometimes not. Someone shoplifting tampons or diapers from a pharmacy counts as a crime. But a corporation stealing millions of their workers' wages doesn't. Tax evasion doesn't."

On one level, the idea of "national crime is going up or down" feels workable and understandable. But, when look under the cliff of how the "national crime report" is built as a concept, important complications and nuance arise. And this happens everywhere, with all kinds of concepts. I'm been slowly compiling examples of such oversights, here on this blog.

As my work on this blog expands, I hope to provide more examples of times when checking "down the cliff" both did and didn't matter (to at least some group's perspectives) across a range of disciplines. I believe it's fairly objective to say the cliff exists, and it's my mission in life is to try and label where we're at exploring said cliff accurately. How often you want to check what's down there, especially in your own personal life, is up to you. 

However, we also live in deeply interconnected societies, and choices made based on certain understandings of reality can and do impact others greatly. Errors in understanding matter, which is why I desire to have the best signage possible about what's deeper down in the cliff, the best ways to explore it, the best ways to handle uncertainty, and so on. Philosophy, in some sense, is the field where such work and guidebooks are crafted.

A key starting point for me is understanding that we do live atop this cliff of deeper unknown questions, for both better and worse. Hence why I built this model. It helps me give some space for valuing and critiquing times to stay atop the cliff, and times to delve as deep in as needed.


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