Why you should do physics instead of philosophy

Philosophy is useless.

Philosophy has never solved a problem, never answered a question, and never made progress. Philosophy can tell you a million reasons why you’re wrong, but it can’t give you a single true fact.

Yet it’s not for lack of trying! People have been philosophizing since Ancient Greece. And yet, after 2500 years of hard work, they haven’t found one single answer. Not one. In what other field could thousands of people get paid year after year, and retire after a long career knowing full well that they accomplished nothing? Imagine if every mathematician only answered “Maybe.” Imagine if engineers could only ever say “Probably not.” That’s what philosophers do. Obviously, nobody in her right mind would take it up.

Because, like I said, philosophy is useless. It is utterly and completely useless.

But you know, so is much else. Many beautiful things are completely worthless. Music is useless; art is useless. We could all (and may yet have to) survive on a vitamin-enriched, calorie-dense, lukewarm gruel—so fine cuisine is useless. French is utterly useless; the French could all (and may yet have to) learn American. French plaza-side cafés with art on the walls and two charming, old, mustachioed musicians playing accordion and guitar and flirting with pretty women ladies, then? The most useless things of all, I figure.

And the most wonderful. Can you see that?

The old, great philosophers—Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates—said that doing philosophy was the very purpose of life. They thought that philosophizing was the very best thing in the world—and I’m sure they sounded then every bit as self-serving as that sounds now. But, as usual, the Greats were onto something. Philosophy is an ‘end’. It isn’t good for anything else; it is just good. Full stop. It is plain, old-fashioned, no-frills, no-nonsense good. It just is.

Things that are good for other things are called ‘means’. Money is the quintessential means: it’s useless except when you use it to get other stuff. Fame, power, and good luck are also means. They aren’t good except for what they bring: other things. They aren’t good ‘in-themselves’. Philosophy, on the other hand, is good in itself.

Philosophy is an ‘end’, and it is only an end. It serves no purpose whatsoever.

Good music, fine food, flirtatious old men and beautiful women—they are ends too. Just plain, no-point-in-arguing-about-it good things. They’re (some of) the reasons we live.

The dead Greeks knew this, but they made a mistake. They said that philosophy is the end, or the chief end, or the best end. It’s not. It’s merely one end among many. Good food, good sex, good wine, good music, and good friends are some of the others. Philosophy is unusual, though, in that most people consider it entirely superfluous. You are probably willing to go out of your way for food, sex, wine, music, food and friendship, but you likely have never tried philosophy. And that is a little sad. It’s a little tragic to live a life without philosophy. Philosophy is just one of those things. I’m not saying, as the Greats said, that you should devote your life to it, any more than I would say you should devote your life to wine or sex; I’m saying that you need to try it enough to appreciate it. Because it’s just plain good.

I’m going to try to make you like it. At least a little.

An aside about the (terrible) quality of this book

Look, let me be honest with you: this is not a good philosophy book. We’re going to blast through 2500 years of philosophy, careening around, doing terrible injustice to very great thinkers who devoted their whole lives to philosophy. These people sweated every word and laboured over their books. We’re going to read people who wrote with quills on animal skin to get their ideas through thousand of years, across deserts, through war, the sacking of cities, and the burnings of libraries, down to you.

And, meh, we’re just going to keep on going.

Like I said, this is a terrible philosophy book. If you want a good one, there are thousands—but this one has an advantage over all of them.

It’s easy.

I don’t feel bad about this.

The way I see it, my job here is simple: I’m going to give you a crash course of the best bits of the great thinkers, so that you can go on with your life knowing just a little about this enormous, wonderful, moving, and beautiful field of human knowledge. When you want to learn more, pick up one of those excellent books and go forward, doing great things. Here, we’re going to have some fun.

Why philosophy is so useless

Philosophy hasn’t made progress because the subject matter is impossible. I don’t mean hard, or really hard, or damn-near impossible. I mean impossible. The questions philosophers try to answer just cannot be answered. They are questions like these:

  • Is there a god?
  • What do we know for certain?
  • What happens after death?
  • What is reality?
  • What’s the best way to find out what is true?
  • What are numbers?
  • What is the right way to live?

There is something odd about these questions: the answers (if there are any) can’t be shown through data or experimentation. A study showing that 82% of people believed systematic doubt to be the road to truth would be worthless. That a large portion of the world believes in God is utterly unconvincing to me. Answers to the big questions come only from argumentation, and these arguments are what philosophy is all about.

There is another thing that is odd about the big questions: almost everybody stops asking them. You once wondered if the green you saw was the same green that others saw. You wondered what it would be like to be a bat, or a cat, or to have super powers. And as you grew older, you put these questions aside and occupied yourself with more pressing concerns.

Philosophers don’t stop asking these questions. Philosophers are happy looking a little weird and being thought of as space cadets. In that, they are inspiring. There are probably the same impertinent embers still smoldering inside most of us, and with a little care these embers might be relit. I certainly hope so.

I think that this is the very best reason to study philosophy. Students of philosophy get to spend hours with the very wisest, most profound, most impertinent, and—frankly—the weirdest people to have ever lived. It is liberating to know that no matter how stupid the question sounds, and no matter how much more practical people scoff and scorn, some very great genius has likely asked it before.

So go ahead; try it. Ask yourself a stupid question: What is time?

You probably think you know. “It’s hours and minutes or what we measure with a clock!”

Not the answer. I measure my dog with a scale. Does that make my dog heaviness? Saying time is seconds would confuse the thing being measured with the way we measure it.

“A dimension” I hear you say, you the science nerd in the back, as if that were an answer. But be honest—you have no idea what that means. (Neither do I.) What is a dimension? A direction? Uh, huh. I can go back home, but I can’t go back to yesterday. Time isn’t a direction like the others, and I think that calling it a direction or dimension is actually making it less clear.

I bet you wish I had an answer to give you. I don’t. I have no idea what time is—and nobody does. But doesn’t it make you feel just a bit better knowing that this thing all around you, which everyone takes for granted, really just makes no sense at all?

I know I’m a bit weird, but it makes me happy to think that nobody has any idea what they are talking about, even when it comes to fundamental things like directions and time.  This delights me, and it has delighted philosophers for as long as there has been philosophy. I hope that you will find human ignorance a little less depressing by the time you get to the end of this very bad book.