For most of us philosophy is a subject that is pretty well as far removed from daily life as imaginable. And while there are a few exceptions – grappling with the ethics of a health care system, say, or listening to football managers expound their particular “coaching philosophy” – by and large philosophical thinking is considered the intellectual equivalent to four wheel drive: nice to have in reserve for some highly specialized circumstances, but otherwise not really worth talking about.
But Tufts University’s Brian Epstein begs to differ.
As a professional philosopher who was heavily influenced by the likes of Saul Kripke, David Lewis and György Lukács, it’s hardly like he rejects the rigours of the academic world. It’s just that he believes that philosophical thinking plays just as vital a role outside the ivory tower as it does within it. Perhaps even more so.
He first became convinced of this by an intense exposure to the overwhelmingly real-world environment of management consultancy shortly after graduating from Oxford.
“One of the projects I worked on was a macro-trend study for a mutual fund company in Japan. This was in the early 1990s, and although the bubble had started to burst in Japan, it was still the center of the global economy. So we went in and tried to predict what was going to happen in the Japanese marketplace.
“We came up with maybe ten predictions; and every one of them was completely wrong. We knew, of course, that the Japanese economy was aging – that was one thing that we didn’t get wrong – but our predictions based on that were all wrong. Everything that we did was wrong.”
Well, you might think, that’s interesting, but hardly surprising. After all, it’s pretty common knowledge that those in the business of dispensing economic advice are generally much more comfortable pointing to the past than predicting the future. But what does this have to do with philosophy?
For Brian, the growing realization was that the stark failure of his model wasn’t so much the product of poor design or faulty inputs as the simple fact that most people didn’t sufficiently comprehend what they were trying to model in the first place. They didn’t, in short, understand the social world.
“People want to model the building blocks and figure out how the macro stuff works based on the interactions of the building blocks. But they have a really naive understanding of how the big things are built out of the little things, and they also don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to improve that naive understanding.
“Basically they say, ‘Oh well, the social world is pretty simple: it’s people interacting with other people. So what I really need to do is to build models of lots of people and think about how they interact.’
“The thinking is that, since society is built entirely out of individual people interacting with one another, once we improve our models of how people think and interact with one another, then our models of society will be perfect – they will naturally just fall out.”
“But that’s just a faulty assumption. And you can recognize that if you actually look at the way that the social world is built in a more serious way.”
This might seem incurably abstract. But it is most definitely not.
Take the very real-world example of the American Supreme Court. Now ask yourself: How can we accurately describe what this thing is? What are its building blocks?
Well, you might be tempted to quickly respond, the Supreme Court consists of nine people. Which is certainly true. But hardly, quite frankly, the thing we really care about, the thing that really gets to the heart of what the Supreme Court actually is and why we believe that it’s important.
“There’s a way of doing a thought experiment in philosophy where you try to understand, Does this object just consist of these parts? What you do is take those parts, move them to a remote environment and see if that object still exists or behaves in the same way.
“And here it’s obvious: if you take those nine people and move them somewhere where there’s not this enormous infrastructure, then they’re powerless. The power of the Supreme Court consists of much, much more than simply those nine people.”
The basic point is this: if we don’t have a genuine understanding of what the building blocks of our social world are – the things that make up the Supreme Court, or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the World Bank or even a one-dollar bill – then how can we be certain that any of our models based on those building blocks are ever going to work?
Quite simply, we cannot.
Which is why we should always think twice when someone comes along and tells us that some new improved technology, be it artificial intelligence or big data or whatever, is going to suddenly revolutionize our social science models.
Because however quickly and cleverly we can process interactions, if we don’t take the trouble to properly understand what is interacting with what, it’s not going to lead to any new insights at all.
You can call that “applied philosophy”, if you like. But it just feels like common sense.
Howard Burton, email@example.com
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