A need to doubt our doubts

A need to doubt our doubts
Everyday Philosophy


Philosophy is having a bit of a moment in Ireland. It became a Junior Cert short course in 2016, and there are moves afoot to make it a Leaving Cert subject. The Philosophy Ireland organisation is running more workshops every year, in schools, workplaces and prisons.

Our President made the promotion of philosophy a key part of his first term. And every so often the papers will run a thinkpiece about how philosophy and ‘learning how to think’ will help us avoid the next housing crash, or compete with China, or fill the void in the national soul.

As a bona fide philosophy nerd (I did a weekend course in it when I was eight, which tells you all you need to know), this is all great as far as it goes. The love and pursuit of truth – what’s not to like? At the same time though, I worry. An education in philosophy is great if people are actually thinking, actually learning, actually dedicating themselves to the pursuit of the truth. But it’s completely possible to identify as a thinking person without ever having to do any thinking.

In fact, it’s easy. Boosting philosophy will help no-one if all it does is produce a legion of what I think of as ‘Bold Questioners’.

Common sense

What is a Bold Questioner? First, think of his nemesis, the genuinely uncritical person – call him the common-sense thinker. The common-sense thinker is the archetypal man on the street. He lives what Socrates would call the unexamined life. He is a faithful disciple of the conventional wisdom.

The Bold Questioner defines himself in opposition to this apostle of the ordinary. He challenges orthodoxies, is sceptical of authority, and is not going to be hoodwinked. He is a great believer in expertise, and reckons he’s got a decent amount of the stuff. He’s armed with philosophical knowledge, and he knows how to use it. He’s a level above.

The trouble is that the Bold Questioner is only one level above. He’s questioned the views of the common-sense thinker, and he’s not wrong to do so, but he’s stopped right there, content to swap the settled views of the masses for the set of views of the people who question the masses.

There are different versions of these: less sophisticated Bold Questioners tend to like Daniel Dennett or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, while the more sophisticated ones prefer Hume or Nietzsche.

But the Bold Questioner is what happens when ‘thinking person’ becomes an ideology rather than a practice. The dangerous thing about the Bold Questioner ideology is that unlike Marxists, Monarchists, or Mennonites, BQs don’t know they’ve adopted an ideological position: they have ‘disinterested, empirical pursuer of truth’ baked into their self-conception.

And this is fatal to real thinking and real philosophy. Let me illustrate.

I was vaguely involved in an argument with a writer on Twitter recently – a blue-checkmark verified account who had bylines in Salon and Rolling Stone – who was accusing someone else of trying to “impose parochial stigmatization of harmless behaviours as prior to crucial categorical imperatives and rule utilitarian principles”. What?

First of all, rule utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical theory. As the name suggests, consequentialists think that the morally best action is always the one that produces the best overall outcomes.

By contrast, the categorical imperative is from Kantian philosophy, a generally non-consequentialist school of ethics. Non-consequentialists think that ethics is about more than just consequences: an action – say torture – could be intrinsically wrong regardless of what outcomes it leads to.

I’m massively oversimplifying here (stay tuned for future columns, dear reader), and it’s more than possible that my verified friend subscribes to one of the galaxy-brained ethical systems that in some way combine the two schools.

But if he does, I have no idea what it is, because during the entire interaction he never once explained what his imperatives and principles actually were. Instead he just kept repeating the phrase “categorical imperatives and rule utilitarian principles” in tweet after tweet, as though he expected their mere invocation to cast out all ethical error.

What resulted was less of an argument and more of a Gilbert and Sullivan musical. (Utilitarian maxims! Im-pe-ratives categorical! I am the very model of a modern major general!) Philosophy in the hands of a Bold Questioner becomes a club to beat down the BQ’s ignorant opponents rather than a shovel with which to unearth the truth. And the worst part is, they don’t even know it: they genuinely think they’re being brilliant.

I know this particular habit of thought because in many ways I was this guy (but with Keith Ward and Thomas Aquinas instead of Dawkins or Hume). And there’s more than a bit of the Bold Questioner inside me still, and I wager inside anyone who fancies themselves a philosopher.

But if we’re to get serious about real thinking and real philosophy, we owe it to ourselves to kill it with fire.