Philosophy a menace?

I love philosophy. But I do wonder if there should be more of an effort to keep it out of the hands of those who cannot handle it.

The thing about philosophy is that it teaches you to question and doubt, to search for high quality evidence and to suspend judgement on things established by more fallacious arguments. You’d think that is a good thing, and you’d be partly right.

What gets called philosophy, however, is far more frequently misused than used well.

We can apply the tools of philosophy inconsistently, and usually that’s exactly what we do. I’m not just saying that it’s hard to apply philosophical thinking with anything approaching perfect consistently; I’m saying that mostly, we don’t even pretend to try to do so.

Let’s think of a young, religious person. She gets introduced to philosophy in a context that emphasizes the fallacies of those who claim that atheism or dogmatic agnosticism is the best view. That is entirely appropriate! But she isn’t thinking like a philosopher; she is using philosophical tools to believe what she already wanted to believe, which is the furthest thing from genuine philosophy, and deep down she probably has some awareness of that problem.

Imagine that instead she learns about philosophy in a setting that emphasizes the many fallacies employed by the defenders of religion, and the apparent lack of non-fallacious reasons to accept a religion’s claims as true. Also a legitimate way of doing things. After much turmoil, she emerges on the other side of the experience having abandoned her childish faith and confidently embraced a world without gods or spirits. She is just as one-sided and unphilosophical in where she’s ended up as the girl of the first scenario, but with one major difference that leaves her even worse off: unlike the other girl, she has no bad conscience, has no hint of awareness that she is entirely partisan and dogmatic in her approach to philosophical thinking. Her memory of having changed her beliefs, very quickly and in spite of internal and external pressures, has convinced her that she is a courageous person who has found and seized upon the truth.

I think many of us could agree that what people think about religion has a large influence on the direction of society in the long term. Still, it doesn’t seem to make a huge difference to a political community in the shorter term, apart, perhaps, from a measure of social awkwardness in some situations.

But I think of the people I know who were Covid deniers and anti maskers, anti vaxxers, etc., in no small part because they had just enough philosophy to make them considerably less smart than they probably would have been otherwise. As one acquaintance of mine quipped, these folks will accept any anecdote from any stranger on the internet as gospel truth, will embrace any terrible piece of reasoning as long as it supports what they want to believe, but as soon as large groups of knowledgeable scientists start giving evidence and explanations and recommendations, they “become Socrates,” by which he meant that they begin to raise the standard of evidence so ludicrously high that no one could ever satisfy it. Thus they get to believe whatever they want to, and can simultaneously feel good about themselves for being so much more philosophical and shrewd than all those sheep who follow the siren song of those who have knowledge.

In an emergency situation, people with a bit of philosophy can be much worse off than people with none at all. I don’t know what we do about that, but I think it’s important to remember.

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