Shayne Wissler
“… to understand is, above all, to unify.” – Albert Camus

“Shut up and calculate”

August 16 2016

Regarding the ongoing brouhaha about physics vs. philosophy, I think most normal intelligent people are going to easily come to the conclusion that those scientists who have declared philosophy irrelevant are only making fools of themselves. Obviously philosophy is relevant, and these scientists could easily prove that to themselves by considering the fact that the very dispute at hand is a philosophical dispute: once you say “I think philosophy is irrelevant to science”, such questions immediately follow as: “What is philosophy?”, “What is science?”, “What constitutions ‘relevance’?”, and so on. If that isn’t philosophical enough for them we can observe that the question of whether these questions are philosophical is itself a philosophical question.

Insofar as something is legitimate, then philosophy is right there underwriting it. Insofar as we declare philosophy off-limits, we have declared that asking questions about the legitimacy of what we’re doing is off-limits, i.e. we have embraced some form of authoritarianism. With physicists this boils down to a phrase used by physicist David Mermin to convey the intent of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics: “Shut up and calculate.” Why should we shut up? Why not ask why? Only because somebody with authority says so? The formal philosophical answer to that imperative is: “To hell with that!”

Whenever we find a noisy and pointless debate we should ask whether there’s a real problem nearby that it is obscuring, and in this case, there is. While philosophy as such is obviously relevant to science and it’s stupid to question this, it’s fair to ask whether philosophy as an academic institution is relevant. Is what credentialed philosophers are doing helpful to science, or even to society? Indeed, the fact that educated people can spend so much time debating something that is actually obvious, is itself evidence that professional philosophers haven’t done a very good job educating them. (Please note that I am here speaking in general; it is of course the case that there are individual exceptions to the general rule, i.e. actually wonderful philosophy professors in spite of an overall institution that has severe problems.)

The question of whether institutional philosophy is valuable was already asked and answered by Schopenhauer, in his “On University Philosophy” (See “Parerga and Paralipomena”).

“[Authentic philosophy vs. university philosophy] is only a scene from the play which we have before us at all times and in all arts and sciences, that is to say, the old conflict between those who live for the cause and those who live by it, or between those who are it and those who represent it… very few philosophers have ever been professors of philosophy, and even relatively fewer professors of philosophy have been philosophers. Therefore it might be said that, just as idioelectrical bodies are non-conductors of electricity, so philosophers are not professors of philosophy. In fact this appointment, almost more than any other, obstructs the independent thinker. For the philosophical chair is to a certain extent a public confessional, where a man makes his confession of faith coram populo [in public]. Again, hardly anything is so obstructive to the actual attainment of a thorough or very deep insight and thus of true wisdom, as the constant obligation to appear wise, the showing off of so-called knowledge in the presence of pupils eager to learn and the readiness to answer every conceivable question. Worst of all, however, is that a man in such a position is seized with anxiety when any idea occurs to him, whether such will fit in with the aims and intentions of his superiors. This paralyses his thinking to such an extent that such ideas themselves no longer dare occur. The atmosphere of freedom is indispensable to truth.”

— Schopenhauer

Nietzsche continues in this line:

“Experience teaches us that nothing stands so much in the way of developing great philosophers as the custom of supporting bad ones in state universities. … It is the popular theory that the posts given to the latter make them free to do original work; as a matter of fact, the effect is quite the contrary… No state would ever dare to patronize such men as Plato and Schopenhauer. And why? Because the state is always afraid of them. … It seems to me that there is need for a higher tribunal outside the universities to critically examine the doctrines they teach. As soon as philosophers are willing to resign their salaries, they will constitute such a tribunal. Without pay and without honors, it will be able to free itself from the prejudices of the age. Like Schopenhauer, it will be the judge of the so-called, culture around it.”

— Nietzsche (as quoted by Mencken)

Not much has changed. Academia is still highly politicized, and thereby motivated. Philosophy professors must tread carefully lest they upset their patrons, and yet the whole point of philosophy is to strike at the root of social problems. A “philosophy” that isn’t upsetting a corrupt status quo simply isn’t doing its job. But how can a cowed and submissive profession strike at the root? It can’t. And so on the one hand we have the various and sundry obscenities of our political institutions (need I name them?), and on the other we have the near silence of the philosophy profession – the one profession that should be most vociferously and confidently objecting to these. They don’t object in severe and clear-cut terms, and more importantly, terms that convey an actually proper human understanding, precisely because they are bought and paid for. And so “philosophy” becomes either studying ancient history instead of learning what is actually true, or wallowing in the arcane, or endless bullshit sessions. It has certainly earned its reputation of mostly being a waste of time.

The fulcrum of this waste is the academic ethos of politeness mongering, whereby every view is tolerated so long as it is tolerantly proffered, except for the view that we should not tolerate nonsense and evil. It is disrespectful to reason to put on the pretense that irrationality is reasonable, and this is why, as a garden untended becomes overgrown with weeds, all kinds of perverse doctrines (I will let you judge the value of these for yourself) flourish in universities, which both dilutes the power human knowledge by mixing it with trash, and wastes away our economic resources.

“No doubt, when modesty was made a virtue, it was a very advantageous thing for the fools; for everybody is expected to speak of himself as if he were one.”

— Schopenhauer

When philosophers (or academics of every stripe) do object to these political obscenities, they like most other academics take great pains to pretend that the other side is actually honest or morally decent. But this act is only a foolishness that gives license to evil, for while it is true that some issues are difficult to understand and so one must leave room for honest disagreement, not all matters are like this. But the guiding light of academia is to pretend that the only incivility is standing up and declaring that barbarism is barbarism. Where are the philosophers decrying that society-destroying nonsense? Indeed, if it should be anyone’s duty to address it, it should be the philosopher’s.