Philosophy attempts to answer some of the most profound questions: what is truth, what is beauty, what is the meaning of life, how do you know that you believe you have socks on? Well, maybe the latter question wasn’t foremost on the mind of Socrates. But, in a New York Times article, Professor Quassim Cassam argues that this kind of question is posited all too often in modern philosophy departments. This sort of question, he says, explores trivial self-knowledge, as opposed to substantial self-knowledge, which seeks to understand our deepest thoughts and desires.
Philosophy, Cassam says, shouldn’t be wasted on trivial pursuits when there are so many practical concerns in the world. I have had issues in the past with science that doesn’t have practical applications:
“Why the hell am I putting a rubber band around this blue mussel again?”
“So we can determine what kinds of proteins it synthesizes during anoxia.”
“Yeah, but why?”
Must science always have broader, more practical goals in mind? Or is it OK to study the blue mussel simply to gain a better understanding of the blue mussel? No doubt there is plenty of useless science out there.* But there’s also a bit of a forest vs. trees conundrum here; a lot of good scientists focus on their individual trees, and eventually someone puts it all together into a broader understanding of the whole forest. Research on the God particle may not have immediate practical implications for making a better world, but that knowledge ultimately plays a role in everything we know about, well, everything. On the other end of the spectrum, a better understanding of the origins and the unfolding of the universe doesn’t feed a hungry child in Africa, but it helps elucidate how we fit in to this wacky world, and, for me, elevates my sense of humanity.
Likewise, a better understanding of our world and all it’s myriad parts can only serve to edify us, often in unexpected ways. Studying the effects of anoxia on blue mussels leads to a better understanding of heat shock proteins, which leads to a better understanding of how heat shock proteins work in humans, which may lead to better treatments for cancer.
Often questions that may seem trivial at the time later turn out to have important practical implications. And, if everything we produce must be pragmatic, where does that leave art? Maybe the question shouldn’t be whether a scientific or philosophical question has immediate pragmatic applications, but whether it contributes substantial truth or beauty. This brings us back to the bailiwick of the philosopher, because they’re the ones who are supposed to be helping us figure out what truth and beauty are.**
Regarding the specific question Cassam derides, does it actually have merit? Might this line of questioning lead to insights into our cognitive function or philosophical definitions? I can understand how philosophers concerned with substantial issues may not have patience for those they consider trivial. Perhaps they feel that elegant thought requires elegant questions. “How do you know that you believe you have socks on” is not an elegant question. It seems that how one interprets and answers the question determines its worth.
I don’t have a background in philosophy,*** so I don’t speak the academic language of philosophy, but I took a wikipeak at epistemology, which is the study of knowledge, and one avenue that the above question takes us down is pondering the difference between believing and knowing. We believe we have our socks on because we remember putting them on, we feel them on our feet, we look down and see that we have them on, and maybe we even smell them. But we don’t know that our socks are on – maybe our memory is faulty, or maybe we feel something else, or maybe we’re having a hallucination or a dream, and our socks aren’t really on. What do we really know, with 100% certainty? As we’ve discussed before, our senses give us an imperfect window on reality. Beyond that, though, hypothetically our whole understanding of reality could be completely false – none of us knows for sure that we’re not in a Matrix-like unreality. Everything that appears real to us could be a simulation.
Descartes said “Cogito ergo sum”: “I think, therefore I am.” Is that the only thing we can truly know, that we somehow exist in some capacity, because some thing with cognitive capacities has to be doing this thinking? I don’t know, so I’ve revised the maxim to read “Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum.” I’m sure that’s some abominable Latin, but to me it means, “I think I think, therefore I think I am.” So what do I know? Nothing.
But I believe a lot of things. I believe, with more than a little conviction, that we’re not in a Matrix-like unreality. I believe that the reality we perceive is fairly accurate. I believe that I have socks on.****
At this point, Professor Cassam is likely rolling his eyes and saying, “Yes, yes, but this isn’t the problem with the question – the thoughts you’re describing have been discussed for centuries without invoking a silly sock question. And anyway, you’re not addressing the fundamental point of why this question is banal.” The question is how you know you believe something, anything. For me, this takes us back to Descartes; if we know that we exist, because we think, does it follow that we can also know that we believe certain things to be true? If, for example, I’m actually just a brain-like thing floating in a vat with electrodes pumping false experiences at me, I may believe that I’m a human being wearing socks, but I can fairly say that I (whatever I am) know I have this belief (even though my belief is wrong). But what if the thing controlling my false experiences can also make me believe that my false self has socks on even when my false self sees that he doesn’t have socks on? Is it my belief or an implanted belief? Is it my belief either way? Do I know I have it?
Maybe we can’t know that we believe something. Or maybe we can. But the question does seem to have some epistemological value. Could discussions that explore this (more deeply than I’m capable of) lead to discoveries like those of heat shock protein functions in blue mussels, providing fodder for cognitive scientists to better understand our minds?
Is this a “tree falls” question, a “one hand clapping” question that will bring us enlightenment? Or is it academic excess and did I just waste a bunch of time talking about it? Do blue mussels know they believe anything? Guess it depends on how you look at it.
Regardless, it couldn’t hurt for philosophers (and scientists) to raise their arms from their chairs, walk into their gardens, and begin to think about the utility of the seeds they’d like to sow.
*The Ig Nobel Awards go out to scientists whose research projects explore, shall we say, interesting topics. Some of this is laughable, but even some of these studies have merit. Our good friend Jaroslav Flegr, of cats-controlling-our-brains fame, got a nod this year.
**I’m still wrestling with Keats’s conclusion to Ode on a Grecian Urn: “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” That’s a discussion for another time. In keeping with the theme of the current post, though, Keats was called out for a similar transgression to the one Cassam accuses some philosophers of. In an 1820 review of the poem, Josiah Conder wrote, “That is, all that Mr Keats knows or cares to know.—But till he knows much more than this, he will never write verses fit to live.”
***I did once take an intro ethics class in college, which I found fascinating, but my professor was a utilitarian and I’m not, so I got a C (if I had been more of a utilitarian, I would’ve acquiesced to his utilitarianism and probably gotten a better grade).
****In other words, I’m no metaphysical solipsist; I think you guys have minds, too, and I respect you for it. Perhaps I’m more of a methodological solipsist in my beliefs, although I’m still not absolutely sure of my own consciousness.