Philosophy is dead

Or so the New York Times would have you believe. In an opinion piece on April 6, columnist David Brooks declared we were facing ‘the end of philosophy’, as cognitive scientists realised the extent to which our moral judgements are guided by our emotions, rather than our reason.

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.

Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably wrote, “The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and … moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.”

So Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and about 95% of the canon of Western philosophy is a waste of time. We can’t reason our way to happiness and virtue. Instead, we should embrace our emotional intuitions about the world.

Well, up to a point.

It’s true that cognitive scientists are now arguing that many of our judgements about the world are automatic, non-conscious, and guided by the limbic system in the brain. The limbic system is one of the oldest bits of the brain, and it guides our emotional or ‘gut’ reactions to things, like desire, shame, revulsion, euphoria, and so on.

We couldn’t sit around and philosophize about every external thing that forces itself onto our attention. We’d end up never doing anything and, in our original home of the African savannah, we’d quickly be eaten. So our brains developed to make rapid, automatic assessments of our environment.

However, sometimes our automatic assessments go wrong. They gets out of synch with our external environment, and consistently gives us wrong information. If you’re depressed, for example, your automatic assessments of the world are consistently over-pessimistic. If you’re in the grip of an anxiety disorder, you consistently perceive or ‘feel’ danger even when you’re in non-threatening environments.

This is where philosophy can help. Socrates taught that you can take even very habitual, automatic responses to the world, and bring the light of reason to bear on them. You can ask ‘is this really a wise way to perceive the world? Does it make sense? Is it helpful?’

Then you can gradually replace a habitual, automatic, way of evaluating the world with a wiser, more philosophical way of perceiving it. So philosophy can bring your mind into a more harmonious relationship with your environment, when your automatic limbic system has got out of synch with the world.

This has now been proven by cognitive scientists. The most successful and evidence-backed modern therapy – cognitive behavioural therapy – has shown how unconscious emotional disorders like depression and anxiety can be healed through a process of rational self-enquiry.

The patient, in CBT, learns to become aware of how their automatic evaluations of the world may have become misleading and irrational. Then they work to challenge those automatic views, and to replace them with more rational ways of interpreting the world.

It doesn’t come easy – it’s a long process of repetition and practice, until the new way of seeing the world sinks in and itself becomes automatic. So while the limbic system often guides our reason, our reason can also, with alot of effort, sometimes shape our limbic system.

And what did the inventor of CBT, Professor Aaron T. Beck, call his method of rational self-enquiry? The Socratic method.

There’s life in the old dog yet.


  • CJ says:

    Hi, I practice Buddhism and it has helped me understand that our emotions apparently arise from within us but by no means do they define us. Emotions come and we observe them. We may act on them or we may not. They are not reality and we are not our emotions.

    The article you reference makes me very sad actually. When people believe their emotions define the truth their happiness becomes a hostage of their emotions, and it does not need to be that way,

  • To further this though, new research is showing that decisions are taken by the brain before the conscious mind is aware of it. It just demonstrates that the brain is a complex and layered machine that has evolved to maximize our survival. In the process, evolution created both emotions and rational thinking. It only makes sense that we should avail ourselves of both. The wisdom is in finding the right balance.

  • Anonymous says:

    What you are describing as being useful in philosophy is included in the scientific method without the need to invoke philosophy. In the CBT example, it could easily be argued that the process is entirely scientific, and that the solution would have eventually been found through a naturally driven need to improve life experiences. Aristotle and their ilk were notorious for belittling the role of evidence and observation and it's why few people are interested in what they have to say anymore.

    The reason philosophy is dead is the same reason astrology is dead. It's unnecessary to describe the patterns and realities that we see. Observation and evidence forms what you call "philosophy", not the other way around. Anytime it works, it's pure luck on the back of scientific work.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Hi Anonymous

    'Aristotle and his ilk were notorious for belittling the role of evidence and observation'???

    Aristotle was a scientist and a philosopher. He used to get Alexander the Great's army to send him back specimens of animals and plants for him to anatomize.

    You could say that CBT would eventually have been found through the scientific method of trial and error. But it wasn't. It was found by Albert Ellis reading Stoic philosophy. So we have the ancient Greek philosophers to thank for modern therapy.

    Try to get beyond the 'science versus philosophy' argument. Its sterile and pointless.

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