• Phil Tanny
    To address the question of whether academic philosophy is reason based, let's start with a little thought experiment.

    Thought Experiment

    If you will, imagine that I walk around all day every day with a loaded gun in my mouth. When you try to talk to me about the gun, I roll my eyes at your hysteria, wonder aloud what your problem might be, and sweep the gun under the rug by changing the subject to some other topic. I do this every day. For decades.


    If I was walking around with a gun in my mouth, and was bored by the gun, you consider me rational? Would you label me as an expert in the use of reason? Probably not.

    This may seem like a silly exaggerated story, but it actually pretty accurately represents the relationship between professional philosophers and the very large gun in the mouth of our civilization, nuclear weapons.

    Case Studies

    CASE #1: I once spent every day for months on a group blog by a prominent well known organization of academic philosophers. They publish a new article on their blog every day or so, and have been doing so for years. Out of all those articles can you guess how many are about the thousands of massive hydrogen bombs which stand ready to destroy modern civilization upon the orders of a single human being? One. A single article. And that article is there only because the editor, a nice fellow with a PhD in philosophy, tossed it up on the site just to shut me up. That was a few years ago, and nothing has changed since.

    CASE #2: I've spent years exploring philosophy sites and forums looking for discussion of the single most pressing threat to everything we hold dear. Every philosophy site I find, it's always the same, no mention of nuclear weapons. Every other topic in the civilized world is addressed, except for the threat which could erase the civilized world in just a few minutes.

    CASE #3: I created a long thread with many posts all about nuclear weapons on one active philosophy forum, and it received just one reply from members. The thread has since been deleted by the mods.

    CASE #4: A few weeks ago a philosopher of science went somewhat hysterical and booted me off his Facebook page when I tried to explore our relationship with knowledge through the lens of nuclear weapons. He seemed like a nice guy otherwise, but once I mentioned nuclear weapons, I had to go. A philosopher of science, declaring nuclear weapons are off topic to our relationship with knowledge, philosophy, and science.

    For years, I've tried to talk to every academic philosopher I can find about nuclear weapons. Some are briefly polite, some are not, but none of them seem to consider nuclear weapons relevant to the field of philosophy. That's politics they say. It's off topic. Boring.


    The Argument

    In this thread I will argue that just as you wouldn't consider me rational if I was bored by a gun in my mouth, it's not rational for almost all members of the intellectual elite (not just philosophers) to be bored by the very large gun in the mouth of our entire civilization, nuclear weapons.

    Most of the academic philosophers I've read are intelligent, very well educated, and quite articulate. Mostly nice people too. I've learned that such abilities don't automatically equal an ability to reason.

    In coming posts I hope readers will see there's more to this than a debunking gotcha slam down of academic philosophers. Yea, I'm frustrated by the entire field, but that's only because I expect so much.

  • Phil Tanny
    As is so often the case, this question of whether academic philosophy is rational seems to boil down to how one defines philosophy. I would agree from the start that nobody including me owns that word, so each of us are free to define it through our own lens.

    If we were to define philosophy as a thorough study of the history of Western thought, as an intellectual business, or as the carefully crafted expression of a thinker's favorite ideas, then I would agree that by that definition academic philosophy is rational in that it clearly meets such goals. And I would agree that such definitions are widely accepted, and thus a reasonable use of the term "philosophy".

    For myself, I prefer a definition of philosophy along the lines of...

    Philosophy: The application of disciplined thought to the advancement of human welfare.

    It's from this definition that I'm questioning whether academic philosophy is rational.

    Attention to nuclear weapons is of course not the only yardstick by which we might measure how well academic philosophers are addressing the advancement of human welfare. Nuclear weapons are just a simple, well known, and very dramatic example of a threat to human welfare which is easy to point to as an example.

    If a philosopher's focus is squarely on the advancement of human welfare, then it would be rational to focus one's work on one of the largest and most imminent threats to that welfare. Nuclear weapons can destroy everything, in just a few minutes, and that could happen at any time without warning. Large. Imminent. Threat.

    Focusing squarely on the advancement of human welfare would also be a rational pursuit of the academic philosopher's own self interest because serving the public, in a manner the public can access, is the most logical path to the field of academic philosophy earning the professional respect which it so often seems to be in search of.

    There is a very important role that professional philosophers can play in our society. Academics wish to inhabit such an important role, and we in the public who typically fund their enterprise would like them to as well. If hard working waitresses and plumbers are going to be required to take money out of their paychecks and send it to academic philosophers, they would of course like to be able to see a return on that investment.

    As we proceed below, we'll look at how such a mutually beneficial state of affairs might be brought in to existence, through the lens of nuclear weapons. Let's also demonstrate how mentioning the phrase "nuclear weapons" doesn't automatically take us out of the realm of philosophy.
  • Phil Tanny
    So what am I asking academic philosophers to do?

    As a place to start, let's get this out of the way. It's not politics.

    ACTIVISM?: Sure, if we were a rational species we'd all be down in front of the White House protesting nuclear weapons every weekend. But this is a responsibility of all citizens, and not academic philosophers in particular. So no, I'm not asking academics to wave signs and shout slogans.

    PARTISAN POLITICS?: Here in the United States at least, the Democrat and Republican parties typically ignore the biggest threat to the republic with equal measure. So even if a philosopher wished to fight nuclear weapons through political partisanship it's not at all clear what party they should support. So again, this is challenge for all citizens, and not a burden it would be reasonable to place on philosophers alone.

    What Am I Demanding?

    So if not politics, what then? What am I asking, or um, demanding that academic philosophers do??

    I'm asking academic philosophers to be philosophers. I'm asking them to be rational. I'm asking them to be relevant. Here's how.

    The threat to human welfare presented by nuclear weapons arises from a source more fundamental than global politics. This threat, like others such as climate change, arises from our relationship with knowledge.

    How can fundamental causes not be relevant to philosophy?

    How can our relationship with knowledge not be a topic suitable for professional philosophers to investigate?

    Our relationship with knowledge is a fundamental factor which will determine the course of the 21st century, and probably the rest of human history as well. How we manage this relationship will determine whether our future is full of glorious miracles, or a descent in to dystopian horrors. How our culture thinks about our relationship with knowledge will decide whether we are handing our children a garden of eden, or sending them in to an unbearable hell on Earth.

    To the degree professional philosophers ignore this all important relationship with knowledge, they are irrelevant to what matters most, the advancement of human welfare. And to the degree that is true, they will be forever condemned to continue writing obscure papers on arcane topics, papers that almost nobody reads. There's a price tag for being irrelevant.

    Who Else Can Do This Job?

    Who do we expect is supposed to examine our culture's relationship with knowledge?

    POLITICIANS?: In a democracy our political leaders are basically highly skilled sales people. They have a valid role in representing the will of the people, but surely we don't expect sales people who are always running for the next election to provide deep reflection on fundamental issues like our relationship with knowledge. I mean, c'mon, even our highest ranking national politicians can't focus on the nuclear weapons which could erase our society in less than an hour. They can't really do the job they already have, it would irrational to expect even more of them.

    SCIENTISTS?: Scientists are highly skilled at developing new knowledge. This is the job we hire them to perform, and they deliver. But knowing how to develop knowledge, and having an ability to reflect deeply on our relationship with knowledge are not automatically the same thing. In fact, because scientists were born to develop knowledge, and get paid to do that job, it seems reasonable to claim that, as a group, they have a built in bias which will make it difficult to impossible for them to observe our relationship with knowledge in a truly holistic and fully objective manner. Scientists are really good at what they're really good at. It would be irrational to expect them to be really good at everything.

    So who is it that should examine our relationship with knowledge? Oprah? Talk show hosts? Novelists? TV programming executives? Comedians? Internet blowhards such as myself? Who is it that is best qualified to inspect the relationship which lies at the heart of our modern science driven civilization?


    They're intelligent. They're highly educated. They're articulate. They've studied the history of Western thought in considerable detail. They have Phd's, cultural authority. They have offices in the ivory tower and funding from major universities. They have access to tomorrow's leaders, today's young people.

    Philosophers are the most qualified people for examining our relationship with knowledge. It's a very important job. It's their job. Now we just need to persuade them to do it.
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