It’s difficult to imagine a time when I was more obnoxious than I am now, but at the tender age of eight I was as insufferable as they come. Being the rebellious little rascal I was, I had made it my goal in life to test my mother’s patience as frequently as possible. Once, my insolence caught the attention of my father. But rather than ground me for a week or two, he decided to give me his timeworn copy of Plato’s “Republic.”
Unsurprisingly, my eight-year-old brain struggled to grasp this ancient text. The complex metaphors and slightly totalitarian overtones flew over my head. Still, I persisted stubbornly, until I stumbled upon a passage about the allegory of the cave.
The allegory of the cave tackles one of the fundamental questions of philosophy; what if everything we believe is wrong? And consequently, why even question our beliefs when we could be perfectly content with watching the shadows on the wall? It was the tipping point of Western intellectual history — a paradigm shift in human thought. Since then, the human race has endeavored to escape this wretched cave, with reason as our compass and method as our pickaxe.
In many ways, we’ve succeeded. On any given day at Yale, we are trained to solve complex mathematical problems, develop wonder drugs, simulate world markets and analyze the human psyche.
Unfortunately, most of us aren’t any closer than Socrates was to figuring out what makes the good life. This is because the modern era has relegated philosophy to near obsolescence. From 2013 to 2016 alone, the number of philosophy majors at Yale fell from 32 to 17. As Yale actively recruits more and more science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors, that trend seems unlikely to shift.
Our successes in quantitative fields over the past century have driven us to value only the questions we can definitively answer. Our society is now convinced that with enough test tubes and a bit of elbow grease, we can eventually solve any scientific question we ask. Unfortunately for us, many fundamental philosophical questions are impervious to the scientific method.
Much of the frustration directed toward philosophy stems from an inability to accept the absence of clear answers. Just ask any student who has taken philosophy professor Shelly Kagan’s notorious “Introduction to Ethics” class.
He is an infamously harsh grader, not because he is a sadist, but because his definition of “excellent” is elusive, just as excellence in philosophy is. And that drives students mad.
We now live in a world of instantaneous access to information. Both the smartphone in my pocket and the laptop I am writing on are exponentially better than I am at gathering, analyzing and synthesizing quantitative data. Because of this, our generation of college students has become accustomed to having the information we need at our fingertips. Consequently, we find it easy to dismiss philosophy as a labor which yields no worthwhile fruit.
This condition particularly afflicts the highly educated. We are overconfident in our ability to answer questions and distraught when these answers don’t materialize. But at its core, philosophy is the art of presuming ignorance. How can I believe that “all I know is that I know nothing” if I can just ask Siri any question under the sun?
That said, when I did ask Siri what the meaning of life was, I received a surprisingly poignant response: “I find it odd that you would ask this of an inanimate object.” The thought itself is downright silly — what could a computer possibly know about the meaning of life? And yet, it appears that many now suppose that science can do what philosophy once did. Somehow, we’ve bought into the idea that regression analysis, a brain scan or two and the right combination of stimulants can tell us more about what makes an individual happy than a conversation. A good life now can be defined as a number, roughly calculated by adding your annual income, net wealth and subtracting that by your number of divorces.
As students, we do not need to lock ourselves in the library to read Kant and Nietzsche until we know what makes us happy. The answers will not be there, either. Nor would it behoove us to drop whatever interests we have and commit ourselves to a life of philosophizing. On the contrary, we must learn to be philosophers within the context of our own lives.
Rather than shy away from the unknown, we should embrace the uncertainty of life’s tougher questions. We should strive to be stubborn and dogged in our attempt to answer them, regardless of our degree of success. More than any other discipline, the value of philosophy is in the questions and not the answers.
Daniel Dager is a freshman in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .