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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

So, About my Major…

Most of the people who tolerate my company for extended periods of time (i.e. my friends), or who have ever been stuck having a conversation with me, have heard this rant in some form or another. And since I’ve not had any adventures recently, and it’s too hot to make one up (93F, Heat Index of 98=34/37C), you, my semi-captive audience, now get to hear it.

I used to be a Latin major, which I hated to tell people. Because always, always they would ask “What are you going to do with that?”. Or they would laugh, as if they were saying something clever and say “I though that was dead language!” (Latin is not a dead language, or a petrified one, but that’s another rant for another day). I had thought changing my major would put in end to that, but surprisingly many people find philosophy a more useless pursuit than a “dead” language.

The other day I went to Barnes and Nobel looking for a copy of Plato’s Laws. I’m a pretty regular buyer of books and consequently know my local bookstores pretty well, so I usually just find what I’m looking for on my own. In Barnes and Nobel, non-fiction books are upstairs, and divided into two halves. On the left is what I call “academic” books: History, biology, politics, psychology, computer programming, etc. On the right are craft books and the religion section. The Laws is a philosophy book, so I went upstairs and scanned the sections. No philosophy. So I walked down the rows on the left side, without any luck. I glanced down the ‘Religion’ section, but still didn’t see what I was looking for.

Finally, after wandering around downstairs just in case, I had an employee look the book up in the computer. “Oh,” he said helpfully, “It’s in the philosophy section.” “Where’s that?” I asked. “I’ll show you”. I followed him back upstairs, to the right, through ‘Religion’, and there it was. Philosophy. Sandwiched between ‘Religion’ and ‘Astrology’, right across from ‘New Age’. What’s the point of this story? It seems to me that the location of the philosophy section in Barnes and Nobel fairly accurately represents most people’s view of the discipline. Philosophy, many seem to think, exists in a realm somewhere between religion and pseudo-science. It’s a wishy-washy major, for people who just want to go around asking questions with no answers and avoid doing any real work. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Philosophers were the original physicists, botanists, psychologists, and political analysts. In around 310 BC, Epicurus, a philosopher and founder of what would be called the Epicurean school, proposed that everything on earth – solids, liquids, and gasses – were made up of tiny, vibrating particles which he called atoms. A little later, a philosopher called Aristotle (heard of him?) proposed that things tended to move towards the earth. And much, much later, Newton would consider himself a natural philosopher, occasionally foraying into the realm of metaphysics. The fact is, almost all of the areas that people study today where once branches of philosophy. After all, philosophy literally means a love of wisdom, and all of Academia is (or should be) concerned with wisdom and knowledge (incidentally, our word “academic” is from the name of Plato’s school, The Academy). Far from being the dotty scholars they’re seen as today, philosophers were once the scientists of their time, and the founders of modern science.

Well, that was then. What about now? Science is no longer a branch of philosophy, but a discipline in its own right, with its own branches. What role can philosophy play in the modern world? The answer is that philosophy plays the same role today that it always has. Even though the different disciplines have become more specialized, and the scope of philosophy has shrunk, its still there, lurking behind even the most advanced scientific discoveries. Richard Dawkins even ventures into the philosophical sphere when interpreting the results of experiments. Science has a limit to what it can explain, and where it stops, philosophy picks up.

I’ve focused predominately on the relationship between philosophy and science in this post, but there are many other areas that fall into the sphere of philosophy, such as ethics and politics. I could take make this a more in depth argument, but as this is merely a blog post, I’ll spare you the reading (and me the writing) of it. I know not everyone will accept my arguments here, but I do hope that maybe next time you ask what my major is, you won’t laugh at my answer. Not to worry though. To that ever popular second question, “Do you have a back-up”, I can reassuringly answer yes. I’ve kept Latin as my minor.

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