Thursday, 17 January 2008

A Marriage Made In Rationalist Heaven

OK, so I'm biased. I'm aware that the common perception of a philosophy degree is that it is impractical and of no use in the real world. I beg to differ. No great surprise there, right?

Here's my point: philosophy is the closest thing to scepticism you can study as an academic subject. The main outcome of a study in philosophy is the ability to analyse arguments, identifying fallacies and assumptions. It's basically in-depth assessed practice in the very skills central to scepticism.

When I was starting to study my A-levels, and decided I was interested enough in philosophy to study it, I was told that the closest things on offer at the college I was attending were religious studies (half philosophy, half ethics, all using religious examples) and half an A-level in a new subject called "critical thinking". So my first real experience of philosophy was analysing arguments for and against the existence of "God". Heard of Richard Dawkins good and early, and realised that the vast majority of arguments in favour of the existence of "God" assume what they attempt to prove. Critical thinking, on the other hand, gave me a more rounded education in the names and types of logical fallacies.

I'll not deny that there are other subjects that promote scepticism of a sort: science being the foremost in my mind, with its central ideology of the importance of the scientific method. It's not even taught outright most of the time: the importance of it is demonstrated through the emphasis on methodology in everything they do. From the get-go, it educates its students in the correct way by which we come to knowledge of the world and universe around us. What is notably absent, though (and I'm not criticising science education here) is any mention of how to spot a flawed argument. Naturally students of science should be able to spot flaws in methodology in scientific (or pseudo-scientific) claims, but logical fallacies are more wide-ranging than that. I think scientists, if they are to be true sceptics, need to take an active interest in the activity in order to develop the full range of skills.

I also think it helps to have a good grounding in pedantry.

So no, I don't think philosophy is useless as an academic subject - but I wouldn't recommend taking it at degree level unless you want to go ahead and teach it. I think there would be great benefit in teaching it (or critical thinking perhaps) at a younger age as a small subject, like compulsory religious education here in the UK - one lesson a week if the student doesn't select it as a GCSE option. As a sceptic, I think these skills are vitally important - to protect people from scams, if nothing else.

By the way, in place of philosophy as the most useless (widespread) academic subject, I would most likely place media studies. Hel, I could probably do fairly well on a media studies paper without taking the course - I can spot symbolism a mile off in films.

No comments: