The Questions We Should Ask And The Ones We Shouldn’t Bother Too Much With

What is it worth spending your time on? What should we give up on—or at least set aside?

One of the most important, but least asked, philosophical questions is: which philosophical questions are worth asking and which are a waste of time? I think, as I argue in my (non-existent) academic paper “Can Philosophy Be Justified In A Time Of Crisis?” that there is a broad question of what kinds of intellectual work can be morally justified in a time when these same intellectuals could be using their talents to solve social problems. If I have an uncommonly strong aptitude for analytical thinking, should I spend my days writing a new hypertensional account of metaphysical equivalence, or should I go into public health and try to figure out how to keep poor Alabamans from contracting hookworm?

That paper irritated some philosophers, though I can’t think why. “If it’s not a joke, then the author is a fool,” said a man who calls himself the Maverick Philosopher. He calls it a “fundamental error” to think that “philosophy needs justification in terms of something external to it.” The Maverick argues that philosophers should “show contempt and supercilious disdain” toward the “uncomprehending philistines” who cannot “be reasoned with.” My question was like asking “whether Beethoven should have become a social worker.”

I have to confess, the Maverick’s response delighted me. I couldn’t have found better proof of the point. He said that philosophy didn’t need justification, that it was self-justifying and that anyone who didn’t think so was a “fool.” My point is that it is somewhat odd for a philosopher to prohibit the asking of certain philosophical questions, e.g. “Can a pursuit be self-justifying and why?” This kind of philosopher is willing to pursue open inquiry wherever it may lead, except toward the questions that implicate his own life-choices. For those questions, we can simply declare discussion off-limits and call anyone who asks for reasons incapable of being reasoned with.

I don’t think the question “Should Beethoven have been a social worker?” is as silly as it sounds. I think the answer is “No,” because even if you are a strict utilitarian who believes every act must be justified in terms of its effect on the aggregate social good, Beethoven has brought people many times more pleasure through his music than he would have by ladling out beef stew at a Viennese soup kitchen. For the many of us who aren’t Beethoven, though, the question can become more difficult to answer. For someone whose talents are analytic rather than artistic, the question is not “Should I spend my time writing the most beautiful sonatas in the history of music or should I make fumbling attempts to help the poor?” Rather, it’s something more like “Should I write papers on minor metaphysical questions in journals that few people read or should I become a psychiatrist/climate scientist/legal aid worker/charity coordinator?” To say that the pursuit of philosophy is “self-justifying” is not just to say that you’ve resolved this question in favor of becoming a metaphysician (i.e. that you can find a justification), but to say that there is no relevant moral question here at all. The Maverick said the correct position was literally to refuse to defend philosophy, because even to defend it would concede too much.

This seems to me like an irrational cop-out. If I ask you “How can you morally justify ignoring all the suffering in your midst?” and you say “I refuse to answer that because I reject the premise that I have to justify myself,” you could at least tell me why you don’t think justifications are necessary. To me, part of being a self-reflective human being, part of caring about philosophy, means examining the moral implications of our choices and considering why we make them. To reject self-scrutiny, e.g. questions about whether you can defend your decision to go to grad school for medieval history rather than become an immigration lawyer, is to reject the fundamental Socratic dictum about life: if you don’t examine it, it ain’t worth living it. (The four smartest people I know, by the way, who could each have been top scholars, all rejected academic careers in favor of service-oriented careers, precisely because they took this question very seriously and did not see the pursuit of knowledge as inherently self-justifying.)

The fact that we have a finite amount of time on earth (alas!), means that we face a lot of difficult questions over how to apportion that time. It’s scary realizing that every moment you’re spending doing one thing is time you’re not spending doing another thing. It’s understandable that we might want to avoid pursuing questions of how we should choose to spend our lives, because they open up a paralyzingly vast range of possibilities. Better to just shut down discussion by declaring something like “I do what I do because it’s what I do, and that’s that.” Better, but not very thoughtful, and a little self-serving, no?

But even if we set aside the matter of how much time we can reasonably spend thinking versus doing (and what that distinction even is), and decide that the phrase Knowledge For The Sake Of Knowledge is all you need in order to justify the life of the mind, we can also ask what kinds of knowledge are worth pursuing. Yes, “whatever interests you.” But no part of academia actually allows you to pursue “whatever interests you.” If I decided I’d like to spend my time figuring out exactly how many leaves there are on the magnolia tree outside my office, and spent 100 hours counting them, nobody would publish my findings. I would have produced “new knowledge,” since as far as I know the leaves on this particular tree have never before been counted. But I would find it hard to convince a journal to publish my data. (Actually, I might make it into the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology, which infamously published an article consisting of the words “Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List” printed several hundred times over.)

Every area of thought, then, has some implicit hierarchy of what constitutes a useful addition to the sum of human knowledge. What’s strange to me, though, is that even though every field quite clearly distinguishes between thoughts that are worth having and thoughts that aren’t, there’s often little inquiry into how those notions of “the thoughts worth having” are built and whether they are sound. “Why are we spending time on this?” is a question that eats at many a listless student from kindergarten through a PhD. But most of the time, actually asking that question gets you treated just as the Maverick Philosopher treats those who question his discipline: like you’re a dimwit. But there are surely reasons why certain questions are considered valuable and others aren’t. When I was an undergraduate in political philosophy, for example, probably the bulk of our time was spent discussing the justifications for the existence of the state and the scope of its powers over individuals, with a bit about whether it should redistribute wealth and how it should adjudicate disputes and balance the competing needs for both “pluralism” and “consensus.” To me, that seemed to leave a lot of political questions unasked, like “What is a fair distribution of power in the workplace?” or “Who should decide what children learn?” By confining its inquiries to relationships between the individual and the state, a lot of everyday political questions were simply left unasked. (I listed a lot more of these questions in a—real—paper called “The Necessity of Social Philosophy“, though I now disagree with 30% of what I wrote in that paper.)

Two questions I find intensely frustrating, and wonder why people talk about so much, are those of “free will” and “human nature.” It’s not that I think they wouldn’t be important if we could produce valuable answers to them. But I tend to think that because we haven’t been critical enough about the limits of our own capacity to answer them, we haven’t realized how fruitless and time-wasting nearly all of our discussions about them are going to be.

Free will seems to be an impossible puzzle. My position is essentially (shockingly enough) the same as Noam Chomsky’s: it’s an area where we bump up against the limits of our own cognitive capacities as animals, and there’s not much useful to say. We face a paradox: it’s easy to be intellectually convinced that everything is determined, and that there’s no reason to believe that our minds are exempt from the causal laws of the universe. But it’s impossible to actually get rid of the idea of free will, since our entire lives are spent having to deal with it. I might think that all of my choices are determined, but then it’s not clear what I mean when I say I “decided” to do X or that I am “trying” to do Y. If I ask you to try to get out of some social obligation so you can come to my daughter’s quinceañera, I am asking you to exercise your capacity for choice. As Chomsky says, we can reason away the existence of that capacity for choice, but then we’re still stuck with having to choose things, and we might just be dealing with an area where our entire conceptual apparatus (“free will” vs. determinism vs. some mutant hybrid) is faulty, and we’re no more capable of understanding the question of what “choice” is than a pigeon would be (We are, after all, closer to being pigeons than to being gods):

Despite much sophisticated commentary, it is also hard to escape the force of Descartes’s conviction that free will is “the noblest thing” we have, that “there is nothing we comprehend more evidently and more perfectly” and that “it would be absurd” to doubt something that “we comprehend intimately, and experience within ourselves” merely because it is “by its nature incomprehensible to us,” if indeed we do not “have intelligence enough” to understand the workings of mind, as he speculated. Concepts of determinacy and randomness fall within our intellectual grasp. But it might turn out that “free actions of men” cannot be accommodated in these terms, including the creative aspect of language and thought. If so, that might be a matter of cognitive limitations.

This seems right to me: I’m not sure there’s much to be gained from even inquiring into this question. Of course, people do think that the existence of free will has major bearing on how we treat one another: if there’s no free will, how can we praise people’s accomplishments or blame people for their failures? How can we punish people for doing wrong? But if you’re a consequentialist, as I am, and you think that punishment isn’t about apportioning blame for mistakes but about trying to minimize future harms, the question doesn’t matter very much. Whether or not a criminal “chose” to act is less important than how we keep criminals from hurting people. Was the police officer who killed Daniel Shaver compelled to do so by causal forces beyond his control? Perhaps. Impossible to know, though. To me, the important question is how we can keep cops from executing harmless sobbing victims in hotel hallways. If there aren’t satisfactory answers to the free will question, if we aren’t even capable of really understanding the question, and everyone who ever thinks about it just gets tied up in knots, then we have to just set it aside and pursue other, more fruitful inquiries.

Likewise “human nature.” I dislike discussion of human nature even more because the phrase is never very well defined. “It’s just human nature to do X.” Well, we know humans do X. But what does it mean that it’s human nature? Does it mean that they tend to do X or that they will always do X? This phrase is often used to characterize the difference between the conservative and the liberal view of people’s potential: conservatives have a cynical view of humankind, and believe that it’s in our human nature to be violent, selfish, and competitive. Liberalism believes that human nature is fundamentally good, or at least malleable. I don’t find any of this very clear, because “nature” itself to me is an odd word. It’s clearly true that there are limitations to what human beings are capable of (because they are pigeons rather than gods) and that we cannot know the limits of those capacities (because we are not prophets and “the fact that human beings have always done X” cannot be used to conclude that “human beings must always inevitably do X until the end of time”). To me, the question of how malleable or fixed we are is not currently answerable through existing evidence. It will only be discovered through experimentation over a very long period of time. Are we doomed to be a violent and selfish species? Can we be made into a peaceful and cooperative species? We currently have no way of knowing.

Essentially, I wish there was a greater willingness to admit the number of questions for which the answer is “Insufficient Data For Meaningful Answer,” what Chomsky refers to as “mysteries.” I accept my status as a humble pigeon, and as such I try to refrain from speculating on issues that I do not think human beings have yet made sufficient non-philosophical breakthroughs in order to make philosophical speculation useful. There are plenty of questions that demand hard thought but might conceivably be answered (e.g. “What would a relatively fair criminal justice system look like and how can one bring such a thing about?”), and we ought to allocate our time to those endeavors that show the promise of yielding something rather than those where there is no reason to believe that further discussion can overcome the barriers that stand between us and insight. (Yes, I know, you never know what something will yield unless you spend time pursuing the inquiry. But that, too, is a principle nobody believes absolutely, because plenty of ideas—such as UFOlogy—are broadly recognized by academics as unworthy of spending time on.)

Unfortunately, I suppose I’m arguing for a kind of (ugh, forgive me) “normative metaphilosophy” that asks what questions we should bother with and how long we should spend on them given that we are mortal beings with finite amounts of time and attention. I don’t believe those questions can be waved away by saying that all knowledge is self-justifying; if anything can be placed beyond critical scrutiny by declaring itself Inherently Valuable No Matter What Arguments Anyone Can Produce Against It, then nothing is more justified than anything else. But since I do believe in rational inquiry, I think it’s crucial to examine our assumptions about (1) which kinds of intellectual work we ought to do, given the moral obligations we have to one another and (2) which kinds of questions should be dwelled on, versus the ones that have a low ratio between “time spent ruminating on” and “amount of insight yielded.” After all, it’s what Socrates would want.

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