Why Philosophy is the cornerstone for tomorrow’s education

The stereotypical philosopher

Most people have really strong stereotypes about philosophers— old men with long beards asking really deep questions about the meaning of life in some Shakespearean form of English. Now that you read that, you probably know that sounds unrealistic or at least that I’m about to refute that in some way. I’ll be honest, in some context, that would be an almost realistic stereotype. Famous ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates were old men, and happened to have long beards, and happened to speak in a weird kind of English — but that perhaps has more to do with culture rather than the discipline itself. However, parts of that stereotype are accurate in some sense even now. Philosophers are some of the most intellectually mature (and thus “old” in a way) people you’ll likely find, and they do ask really deep questions (possibly about “meaning”, among other things). Actually, let’s develop a realistic idea about what philosophy is before going into why I think it’s the most important part of modern education.

Philosophy isn’t psychology, so no it’s not all about studying people’s behavior. It’s also not some useless form of never-ending, confusing contemplation. Neither does it involve views on how we should be living our lives — yes, sentences like “my philosophy of life is…” are just metaphors. What philosophy is, is a study of “what can be”. It’s a study that must precede all other studies of science and engineering, for what science studies is “what is, and what engineering does is answers “how do we make it?”.

Think about it for a minute, everything science does is about studying reality — be it studying the inner workings of animals and plants, or how the elements we’re composed of interact with each other, or what laws govern the physical universe that exists around us. Therefore, it attempts to answer what is the reality. However, with all due respect, that’s easy — you make a theory, and you test it out through experimentation. Of course, there’s a whole array of problems that arise when experimentation in certain scenarios and with extrapolation on its results, but there’s nothing fundamentally impossible about it, as it all boils down to observations.

Engineering, on the other hand, is about using our knowledge of what reality is to augment it, extend it, or replicate it. There’s all sorts of problem solving happening here, and it’s often challenging to integrate all of this knowledge to build real things — but again, there’s nothing inherently difficult about the idea of engineering because you can build something and test whether it works, and then incrementally improve. Like science, there’s feedback in engineering because what you’re limiting yourself to is reality. You take reality for granted, build upon it through axioms, and assume its boundaries often as common-sense.

Both science and engineering (and by extension, math) rely on a preexisting knowledge of what can be, but they are only able to do so because behind all of it is the discipline of philosophy. There are countless questions that we don’t spend much of our time thinking about, but are crucial to how the knowledge of our society collectively progresses. The most challenging aspect of this, however, is that all of this must happen without any feedback because these questions are often at a level where the answers aren’t just out there in the world to be detected.

Are artificially intelligent machines possible in principle? Is there free-will or is it an illusion? Can there be an all-knowing God? What is it to know? What is and what is not art — is there a line?

Aristotle, a philosopher, was behind the original classification of living things. Descartes, the inventor (question to think about — is math invented or discovered?) of Cartesian coordinates, was a philosopher. In fact, when you get into it, some of the strongest criticisms for possibilities on AI were authored by him. Berkeley, Neils Bohr, Albert Einstein, John Dewey, and many other renowned thinkers were actually philosophers (directly — not “in one way or other”). These philosophers questioned the most deeply ingrained assumptions in their respective disciplines, and emerged with reasons why they were false, and by the marks they’ve left, it’s clear that they’ve changed their disciplines forever for the better.

Philosophy, therefore, isn’t a static list of questions that never get answered. Rather, it’s a continuous critical examination of our assumptions about the nature of reality and without that, there is no science or mathematics or engineering. To think is often considered “god-given”, but as students in an increasingly competitive, saturated, and ever-changing world, we need more. We need philosophy to think beyond and to push beyond. We need philosophy to question assumptions — not to annoy people, but to be more conscious about the limitations of our arguments and theories. Questions about knowledge, reality and existence may seem far too abstract for any foreseeable real-world application, and one might argue that many people spend their entire lifetimes without thinking about these issues. However, as long as there’s an application of human cognitive abilities, there will always be an application of philosophy in a way you may not immediately realize! It’s not a subject whose answers might be relevant to you, but it’s rather a way of thinking whose techniques will be forever relevant to any human endeavor.

Further, I have previously written about the two equally important aspects of mindfulness which, as I have argued, is perhaps the ultimate way to enhance human problem solving. Contemplation was one of these two aspects, and philosophy is possibly the best way to indulge in it. You can read that article to learn more, but for the purpose of this article, it should suffice to say that partaking in philosophy is guaranteed to make you a better problem solver in general, and surely we all have problems to solve, as students and in life beyond — hence the relevance.

So, what does all of this mean if you are a student (at a high school or college, or just in general because you’re a “lifelong learner”)? Take interest, sincere interest, in philosophical courses like Theory of Knowledge in IB — simply because it’ll make you a smarter, intellectually mature person. Recognize the assumptions you are making in your own arguments, and in whatever you learn. Take initiative and participate in courses that develop your philosophical background and rational argumentation. Talk with your confidantes, family members, and especially parents, about what you believe is the purpose of your life, and why there is meaning in what you do. Take some time to think into blank space about things larger than yourself and your surroundings.

To the instructors of any kind of philosophy, there’s massive responsibility on your shoulders, and few people who truly recognize and appreciate that — so thank you!

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