Friday, May 21, 2010

Oh dear

Times columnist Sathnam Sanghera thinks it would be a good idea to study consciousness.  He's right.  But he also thinks it is a good idea only so long as you don't do any philosophy and it's all just useful things that involve studying brains and neurons and things.  I don't think this is right.  Sure, studying brains is a good idea.  But why does that mean studying philosophy is not?  He explains:
Indeed, a bit of me dies whenever young people say that they want to study philosophy at university. There is a naive view that three years spent pondering questions such as “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” and “Why are we here?” will help you to understand the meaning of life, when the truth is that philosophy is the most whimsical and self indulgent of academic pursuits, raising more questions than answers and too often being an exercise in intellectual showing off for those involved.
Let's leave aside for now the last point. It's perhaps questionable that raising more questions than answers is a bad thing; they might be good questions and it might be worthwhile recognising that there is a question to which we do not yet have an answer. What makes me groan most is the naive view that a philosophy degree involves three years wondering why we are here. We don't do that, at least not in the philosophy degree that I teach for. And I don't really think any other philosophy degree does that either. The meaning of life? Not really our department. What consciousness is, on the other hand, is. Just as it also belongs to those people who look at brains and neurons. What's important is that the philosophers and neurologists talk to each other.

Here's another bit:
Take the question “What is consciousness?”, for example. Whereas a philosopher could spend two or three hours wittering on the theme without getting anywhere, consciousness studies would come at it from a physiological angle.
I know these columns are supposed to be provocative, but can't we do better than this?  Why is the philosopher allowed only three hours?  How long does the 'consciousness studies' person get?


Matthew Duncombe said...

I completely agree that it is awful that that article seems to operate largely in ignorance of the content of philosophy courses, as well as awfully pompous tone. But what upsets me is the philosophical naïvety it demonstrates.

The paragraph you cite, sketching two approaches to answer the question 'What is consciousness?', seems totally ignorant of the fact that 'coming at it from a physiological angle' describes many of the most popular approaches in the philosophy of mind: many philosophers would say that consciousness is importantly physiological.

But his next point really shows that he doesn't have a clue about what he is criticising: no-one, even the most philosophically impatient brain physiologist, would try to locate 'consciousness' in one particular part of the brain, for reasons that philosophers have known about for 50 years.

Ug. He would do well to actually read some philosophy of mind.

Gavin said...

'The meaning of life? Not really our department'.

Come on! That just isn't true among many philosophers. And the sort of philistinism that says it is *is* turning a blind eye to centuries of philosophising. So what if Sathnam Sanghera and his ilk think questions about the meaning of life are not worth asking? Has he read the likes of John Cottingham who write compellingly to the effect that they are? What makes him so adamant that they're wasting their time? The same might also be asked of you...

James Warren said...

Well, I suppose some of what goes on in a philosophy department might be thought loosely related to 'the meaning of life' if we take that to mean just questions about how to live a good life. But I'm not sure that is the sense in play here, particularly since it is preceded by the question 'Why are we here?' Unless that is a biological question, I just don't really understand what that means. There is the Faculty of Divinity here in Cambridge where they might think about such questions, I suppose. Still, I could retreat this far and object that S.S. seems to think that 'the meaning of life' is the central or guiding question that philosophy ought to address and indeed that philosophy degrees do seek to address. The latter point is, I think, false. The former is debatable and I know that at some times in the past people have thought it true. But I don't think I do.

G said...

Thanks for this.

The observation that 'the meaning of life' is only really definable for the typical UK university philosopher in terms of 'just questions about how to live a good life' is (to me) an interesting one indeed. I suppose the 'just' of that phrase is to be taken as demarcating something important and you indicate that unless the question 'why are we here?' is a biological question, you don't really understand what it means. But I can't see that you really mean this: the question can - and must - surely also be open to answers of a historical kind, of an anthropological/social scientific kind, of the kind a physicist could go some way to formulate, as well as any a biologist - or any other life scientist - might also be in a position to offer. And indeed there are religious/theological answers/hypotheses available too. Where philosophy stands amidst the sorts of answers which emerge from these disciplines is no doubt up to philosophers to decide (as it is to practitioners of the other disciplines too), but it's clear that the discourse that is philosophy has stood within, among and between as well as outside the answers which emerge from these other disciplines over time - and that where philosophers situate themselves with respect to the 'meaning of life' questions has usually in human history been thought to matter rather a lot.

No doubt you're right that the question(s) of the meaning of life don't represent the guiding question for much contemporary philosophy...but the suggestion that we have to look to '[only] some times in the past' to find people who did take it as a - or the - primary question for philosophy seems contestable. I mentioned Cottingham before, but could the same not also be said of a good number of modern Collingwoodians and Macintyreans? It can certainly be said, meanwhile, of many philosophical theologians. In Cambridge philosophical theology may not be studied by the philosopher qua philosopher, but in other places it is. And it may be that the way Cambridge carves its philosophical crumble in this respect could do with being questioned! No doubt any such questioning would just confirm dear Sathnam's worst suspicions? :)