selling philosophy as quasi-science: a parable

I came across an interesting post by Adam over at Sophistpundit called Being a Scholar When You Can’t be a Scientist. The author argues that, although disciplines like history and philosophy are not sciences, there exist relevant virtues to be honored in their practice: humility, transparency of method, engaging extensive sources, and clarity of presentation.

I basically agree with all of this. But I have kind of a pragmatic objection to biting the philosophy-isn’t-science bullet all the way, at least in my capacity as a philosophy teaching assistant. Allow me to illustrate this reservation with a virtual skit.

Scene: Philosophy Teaching Assistants’ office. Late afternoon. A young woman, casually dressed, spins in a chair in her cubicle, fiddling with an iPhone.

Enter, stage left. An even younger women, carrying a large backpack, approaches the cubicle and tentatively takes a seat.

TA: Hi, are you here for office hours? What can I help you with?

Student: Well, I studied really hard for the last test, but I only got a B. I thought I knew all the right answers but apparently they just aren’t good enough!

TA: (looking at blue book) Well, on this first question here, you were supposed to show that you know that some things just might be valuable intrinsically, apart from anyone’s beliefs or choices. Do you remember when we discussed that in class?

Student: Um, kind of, I don’t know. I try to take good notes to memorize later but (bracing self) it’s just all so SUBJECTIVE. I’m an engineering major, and in science there are facts. In philosophy, it’s like everyone is just MAKING STUFF UP.

TA: (getting excited) Oh no, it’s not like that at all! So you know how scientific experiments work, right? You come up with a hypothesis and then test it?

Student: (meekly) Yes…

TA: (getting a little too excited) Well it’s actually alot like that in philosophy! We started with a theory – or hypothesis – about the origin of moral value. We decided to test whether all value is necessarily subjective. But then, we did an experiment of sorts! A thought experiment! And we found evidence that subjectivism might not be true! Because we had intuitions that it’s good that a beautiful planet exists, even if no one knows about it!!!!!

Student: Oh, I see now! Philosophers disagree on matters, and they have methods for testing which theories fit the relevant data better!

TA: Hallelujah!

Student: It all makes sense! I love philosophy now! (kissing TA’s feet)

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


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