It seems that philosophical discussions of any issue lead nowhere, since disputes are bound to arise whatever answer is given to a philosophical question. Discussion of any philosophical question seems to lead only to endless series of arguments and counter-arguments. On the other hand, whatever happens in philosopical discussions and debates seems to make no difference to our ordinary life - science goes on, religion goes on, anti-religious ideologies go on, society goes on. So, wouldn't it be better to devote our time and intellectual resources to things that make difference (i.e. to practical things or theoretical things that make practical difference)?

Many beginning students of philosophy are led to ask questions of this kind. I can sympathize: a philosophy course can seem to consist of arguments and counterarguments, intuitions and counterexamples, with no final resolution offered to any of the questions taken up, and simply an array of failed proposals littering the playing field. How depressing.

But any course that leaves students with this impression has failed. Utterly.

Arguments and counterarguments, intuitions and counterexamples reveal a lot that was not known before. A good counterexample can reveal features of the phenomenon that would never otherwise have been noticed. So even if the philosophical theory that has been "counterexampled" has thereby been defeated, we come away from the process learning something important that we did not know before. Such is certainly the case with, for instance, Gettier counterexamples to theories of knowledge as justified-true-belief, or counterexamples to various simple counterfactual theories of causal relations, or counterexamples to Hempel's deductive-nomological theory of scientific explanation. These arguments reveal important features of knowledge, causal relations, and scientific explanation (respectively) that we need to understand better.

My point is that a failed philosophical theory does not simply leave us as ignorant as we were before. This kind of progress in our philosophical understanding should be evident in a philosophy course if one steps back from the trees (a series of proposals, objections, replies, and so forth) and examines the forest.

The questioner asks whether any of these seemingly endless philosophical disputes makes any "practical" difference. Of course, one could respond that philosophy does not have to make any "practical" difference to be valuable. (The same goes for science, math, music, literature, and other valuable activities.) But rather than respond so high-handedly (though correctly), I would prefer to take up the question on its own terms. Let's look at an example.

Many philosophers have concocted outrageous hypotheses that nevertheless seem to fit our observations just as well as common-sense does. Think of Descartes's discussions of perpetual dreams or malevolent demons, for instance, or Hume's questions about how we are justified in "thickening" our ontological picture with material objects that continue to exist even when we are not perceptually aware of them. These may appear to be the most academic, artificial sorts of issues. Yet the questions that one is led to ask in connection with these cases, and the moves that one is led to make in thinking about some such hypothesis, have had immense "practical" implications. Einstein's theory of relativity was motivated precisely by asking how we are justified in "thickening" our ontological picture with absolute space and time, the aether and the electric field, when none of these is directly observable. Einstein himself cites Hume and Mach as important influences on his thinking in this regard. Questions about the empirical basis for belief in material objects and questions about the empirical basis for belief in absolute simultaneity are not far apart. The same philosophical toolkit that was developed in connection with the former sort of question was deployed with great "practical" effect by Einstein in connection with the latter sort of question.

Is that "practical" enough?

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