Philosophy in the Real World

This is the transcript of a talk I gave to Secondary 4 students at Raffles’ Institution on 30 Sep 2016.

 

Hi, my name is Jonathan Sim. I am a philosopher and I work at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Let’s discuss this question today: how is philosophy relevant in the real world?

You’ve taken classes in philosophy. And you might probably be wondering: what’s the point?

Some of you may say: “Sure, ethics might be useful, as it can help me decide what is right or wrong.” Or some of you may say: “Some aspects of logic might be useful: it helps me develop good reasoning skills.” Some of you may say: “Philosophy is really interesting but it won’t be able to feed me, or help me make money.” And some of you may even say: “I think it’s rubbish, I don’t need this.”

So, what practical use is philosophy in the real world?

What’s the point of asking whether or not I live inside a simulation, or whether human nature is good or bad? What’s the point of asking whether what I know is true, or whether the table in front of me exists?

How are all these relevant to the real world?

Sure, the philosophers in the past several centuries were able to contribute a lot to the world, but that’s because back then, the only subject taught in school was philosophy! But what about now? We have the sciences, and engineering, we have practical disciplines that train you to make a difference in the world. So why philosophy?

So let me share with you my experience working as a philosopher in NTU over the past three years. Allow me to share with you the many interesting ways that I’ve seen philosophy and philosophers in action in the real world.

My main project involves creating online videos on Chinese philosophy. Aside from that, I work very closely with a research centre, known as Para Limes (which means Beyond Boundaries). It was a special project initiated by the President of the University, the Nobel laureate, Prof. Bertil Anderson. The centre is driven very strongly by the conviction (which Prof. Anderson and many other Nobel laureates share) that the next world-changing breakthrough is to be found at the interface of disciplines, of academia, government and industries.

In other words, the next major breakthrough is to be found where various academic disciplines, government and industries meet and interact. This is a serious conviction, and the university makes it a point to bring in the top scientists, mathematicians, doctors, policy-makers, civil servants, ambassadors, Nobel laureates, and, philosophers. In fact, some of these people are on Time Magazine’s List of the 100 Most Influential People of the World.

I have had the honour to sit at table with them, to discuss many of these important issues. And it has been very insightful.

It’s very interesting how the latest scientific discoveries have opened up so many philosophical questions. Let me give you one example.

Recent medical research has found that our gut bacteria have an incredible influence on our neuro circuitry, on our thoughts, desires, and consequently, out actions. What we eat not only changes our gut bacteria for better or for worse, but it also changes who we are. Literally, we are what we eat! More interestingly, research has even found that you can cure a person with severe autism by transplanting bacteria through faeces. That’s right, human poop, from a healthy individual to one with autism, and voila, autism cured. That’s how much the bacteria inside us influences us as a person!

This has led many scientists to begin asking very philosophical questions as a result of their findings. Are we our gut bacteria? (Or how much of the gut bacteria counts as us?) Can we affect who we are by changing our diets? If so, then shouldn’t the issue of what we eat also count as a moral problem? This is where philosophers enter into many of these scientific research, helping them to make sense of the questions that arise from this.

Beyond the research, science can only tell us what is, it can only tell us facts about ourselves and of the world. But facts alone cannot directly translate into action. Science lacks the tools to prescribe what we should do in most situations.

In the example of gut bacteria, it forces us to really think hard about who we are and what we are. If diets change the way we behave and act, should we punish people who don’t eat properly as a way to prevent crime? Is it fair that wealthy people can afford to properly nourish their children? Should we create a class of super humans through a diet that will best enrich their gut bacteria? Should there be government policies to control what we eat?

This is where policy-makers turn to philosophers to answer the philosophical questions that arise from such scientific research. Do we have this going on here in Singapore? Yes. We have philosophers in the Centre for Biomedical Ethics, where philosophers and other specialists help to answer questions like this. Ok, they’re not working on that now, but they do deal with philosophical problems that arise in the course of research. The same is true elsewhere in the world.

Ethics aside, there are other important questions. What does it mean to be human, what does it mean to be me? How do I understand myself?

How we understand ourselves will affect a lot of how we live and interact with other human beings. To put it simply, there will be drastic changes to our lifestyles depending on how we answer these questions. Who’s interested in these answers? It’s not just the government, but businesses who want to sell the next big thing when the next cultural wave takes over. And they are seeking insights from philosophers to help them make the next business decision.

But perhaps, one of the more interesting revelations I had was to see many of these brilliant minds come to the agreement that the sciences and social sciences have hit their limits, that these disciplines have hit a brick wall. And that the problems they are dealing with require philosophical inputs to aid in their search for solutions. They echo: Science can only explain and describe, but it cannot prescribe action.

Scarily, in some areas of science, scientists are finding that their models have great powers of predictability, yet no one understands these computer models or why it works – it just does. There are many top academics and policy-makers who are very worried about that. How can we use what we don’t understand?

On top of that, the top economists, central bankers, and even government officials I’ve met are saying: all the economic theories that are taught at university are wrong, and we’re making too many false assumptions, we’re making too many bad policies!

In some of these discussions, they would turn to me, and half-jokingly ask: What does the philosopher have to say? They know that I’m quite new and wouldn’t have much to contribute, but they are indeed serious that philosophy is required to rise out of the difficulties they face.

So, what are philosophers doing elsewhere in the world?

I met the former director (now retired) of the Rathanal Institute, in the Netherlands, a political research think-tank. He was very proud to boast of his team of philosophers whom he employed to solve a variety of problems in the Netherlands, such as migration, unemployment, etc.

He recounted how his team of philosophers came to the aid in a legal trial against a man with mental illness who had been charged with murder. The philosophers argued in court about just how much responsibility he had for the crime. It was their philosophical input that helped the court decide just how culpable the man is.

I also had the opportunity to interact with people from the UN. They were interested in learning more about Chinese philosophy, so one of them spoke to me about it. Turns out, to my surprise, they publish and circulate official papers on philosophy to stimulate new ideas for policy and governance within the organisation. Yes, philosophy still plays a big role in influencing the ideas of policy-makers even today.

And I think we live in very interesting times. Our own civil service is starting to recognise this, and they are embracing philosophy and philosophers in their decisions now.

I met a philosopher from Germany who has been coming in and out of Singapore because the top ranks of our civil service have been consulting him. He is by far the most interesting person I have ever met. He has been using his research on space and time, and his other philosophical works to consult and advice world leaders. In fact, he was personally involved in carrying out the negotiations between the US and the Soviet Union, and facilitated the very process of nuclear disarmament between the two sides. He was also the personal advisor to Nelson Mandela after Mandela was freed from prison.

Here is a philosopher who means business and is actually using his research and philosophy to change the world and Singapore too.

Now, I’ve also met some civil servants here – with some background on philosophy exploring the different conceptions of time and space, on the metaphysics of the relations of economic entities, and more. All these with the purpose of rethinking and crafting better policies.

 

It is through these experiences that I’ve had with so many interesting people in my years at NTU that has left me a deep impression of just how important a role philosophy still has to play in society.

How will all these technologies change the way we think and perceive the world? How will all these advancementschange the way we behave towards one another? Will we change the way we think about ourselves? How will our society change? Is this a good change or a bad change?

Business people want inputs to these philosophical questions, not just because they’re unsure whether a technology is good or bad for society, but also to help them better understand the conceptual changes that will impact them and the work they do.

One example. Insurance has, from the very beginning, dealt with physical objects. From houses, to cars, to cargo, to horses and cows. If it means a lot to you and your business, you can insure it. But the insurance industry has a new problem, a philosophical problem. How do you insure digital content? If I copy a file from a computer to a hard disk, the file is still in the computer. There is no loss of data, maybe just a loss of earnings (and even that is debatable). It’s not like the traditional form of insurance where there’s an actual loss of something physical. So how do you conceive of non-physical goods in a way that is sensible to insure? Till now, the insurance industry has problems figuring out how best to insure digital content because they simply haven’t solved the philosophical problem of the ontological status of digital goods.

Let me give you another example. I met a director of an IT company. He says that he often encounters problems with making certain decisions. How do you choose if you none of the options are the best, and for that matter, they’re all just as bad?

Iney, menee, miney, moe? Or do you just flip a coin?

These issues may not require philosophical content, but they do require a certain amount of philosophical training to help you come to a sound conclusion. And this is the kind of skills that employers are looking for to help solve the tough problems they face. The director of the IT company? He told me: I wished I had philosophers in my team. We deal with these kinds of problems almost every day.

He’s not the only one who wants philosophers. Consulting firms like Cognizant, recognise the value of philosophical training to solve difficult problems. They specifically ask for philosophy graduates.

Now, to be clear, I’m not here to tell you to go study philosophy and pursue a philosophical career. I’m just telling you about the role of philosophers and philosophy in action out there in the real world, in government and politics.

It’s fine if you tell me: “Mr. Sim, I think philosophy is too abstract. I don’t like it.”

I’m cool with that. You are free to choose. It’s your life, not mine.

But don’t throw philosophy away, or dismiss it as something silly and useless just because it is too abstract for you, or if the things you learn seem to have no application to the world. Many of the things we study in school seem to have no application, but that’s only because we lack the creativity and imagination to see how they are relevant.

Many of us may not have the opportunity to see philosophy in action, but we shouldn’t mistake that to mean that it’s nont making a real impact on the world today. Philosophy is in action, often behind the scenes.

Let me end the discussion with something very real. So far we’ve talked about philosophy in governance and the private sector. What about one’s personal life?

As it is now, I am 29 years old and married. And I can tell you that as we get older, we carry more responsibilities. And sometimes this leads us to difficult situations, where we have to choose between options that are not ideal at all. These options may affect only you, or it may affect other people in your life, e.g. your parents, your partner, your children.

Soon, you will have to ask yourself difficult questions: what should I study after I graduate from Raffles Institution? What should I do with my life?

When you go out to work, you will have to deal with the same question: what should I do with my life? Maybe you have to ask questions like, should I leave this high paying job that’s making me miserable for a low paying job that might make me happier? Soon you’ll be confronted with questions like: what do I do with my time and my money?

These are real questions and they can be very painful and difficult to answer. Sometimes we don’t even know the answers, and that can be incredibly frustrating.

The philosophers themselves have tried and are still trying to answer these kinds of questions. I can tell you that their answers don’t always work for me. Nonetheless, the value lies in nlearning about their thoughts. These thinkers have given me a broader perspective to problems, and they have certainly helped me make better decisions. Moreover, my philosophical training has helped me to make painfully difficult yet sound decisions from time to time.

I have friends who appreciate the fact that I can think through these problems clearly for them, and they come to me to help clarify their thoughts and problems.

It’s fine if you don’t intend to do great things to change the world. It’s fine if you are passionate about other things in life and you’d rather focus your energy on them.

But the point I want to make is this: be sure to have a good dose of philosophy in your life. Whether it’s a big dose or a small dose, take it seriously. It will help you in your personal life and in your work.

And if you hope to do great things in the future, good for you. Philosophy will provide you with the skills and content to help you achieve it.

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