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A Defense of "πŸ₯§ in the sky"


Whether you are interested in philosophy or other abstract disciplines yourself or are merely exposed to them by others, you have probably had the thought "What is the point of this?". Who cares?!

This intuition is valid! Most often for most people on earth, focusing on the experientially relevant "here and now" is priority number one. However, I think in many cases this reaction is misplaced and prevents valuable discussion just because something makes no difference in the moments immediately following. In this short essay, I hope to convince you that abstract philosophy (or abstract reasoning on any topic) is more than just intellectual masturbation and language games, however theoretical and abstracted from immediate experience it may seem.

More specifically, I want to argue that for most folks in the first world (acknowledging the massively privileged existence we have) the case for saying "we shouldn't care" is almost always weaker than the case for "we should care", practically speaking. I will argue that abstract thinking and discussion should be the job of some people for the betterment of humanity generally, that it gets a bad rap, that it contributes massively to real and potential fields of inquiry, and that it can enrich one's life beyond just being an intellectual exercise.

Playing in the sandbox: when "We should not care":​

I will start with the merits and difficulties of the "we shouldn't care" position. A great example of something which will surely illicit this intuition is a paper recently reviewed on Very Bad Wizards, an excellent philosophy/psychology podcast that occasionally dives into a particularly odd paper and has a few laughs at its expense. The paper in question is titled: Illusory checkmates: why chess is not a game If your eyebrows are not already halfway up your forehead, here is the abstract:

In this essay I argue that chess is not a game. I begin by arguing the narrower point that chess is not a game in the sense of 'game' developed by Bernard Suits. Chess is not a Suitsian game because chess lacks a prelusory goal. Chess lacks a prelusory goal, which is a goal that is identifiable before a game is played, because no checkmate position is knowably achievable before chess is played. Checkmate is a postlusory discovery about chess, not a prelusory goal of chess, and chess consequently has more in common with mathematics and physics than it has in common with darts, sprints, and lawn bowling. Various objections are answered.

This sounds fascinating! I wonder if --
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No. No. No. Just... No.

I will let the reader delve into that paper to whatever degree they desire and I won't do any explaining here. Here is the podcast episode for those curious and with time. Can this kind of technical argument be useful to humanity? We want to think that this is just intellectually playing in the sandbox. I am a bit skeptical of even that, but I mostly side with the intuition that it is hard to imagine how this could be useful.

Roughly, I think that the criteria for something being something "we should not care" about are something like:

  • Highly abstract AND

  • is compartmentalized from other domains (hard to imagine it having general implications),

  • only influences behavior in a closed domain

Even in these though, sometimes a niche accidental discovery can be useful. However, saying that something is worth doing because we might do something useful by accident is not a strong endorsement of its utility. It is, therefore, a type of more general abstracta that I am defending here.


An important qualifier here is that I am not arguing that we should ever abandon priorities. If your family is sick, you should likely not be thinking about whether we have free will or what makes a name refer to the object that it picks out.

Why "We should care" more than you think:​

In the following sections, I will argue that

  • We often have unreasonable expectations of abstract thought,
  • that things being not conceivable or not foreseeably useful is not a good reason not to spend time thinking about them (provided they are generalizable in some way),
  • that abstract ideas (however unempirical) drastically influence our behavior,
  • that not every person needs to be working on something immediately pressing at all times (in fact this would make the world a worse place)
  • and finally, that understanding things on an abstract and general level is life-enriching

Realistic expectations of armchair thought​

Often, I experience people expecting that philosophy (or other realms of abstract thought) should be able to contribute science-like discoveries from the armchair. This is clearly a ridiculous expectation. No amount of conceptual clarification or organization will actually give us the fruits of empirical research. We cannot just sit and deduce synthetic and impressive things about the world, most of the time. A realistic and useful deliverable from the armchair thinker is something like the following:

  • Questioning pre-theoretical assumptions or proposing new ones that make a difference in our behavior
  • Determining whether the working-version of a concept can do the work we are implicitly expecting of it
  • Untangling troubling puzzles that leave lots of cognitive dissonance with concepts we frequently interface with

For each of these bullets, there are countless examples from a wide range of disciplines, not just philosophy.

'Inconceivable' has a bad track record​

The first reaction people often have to being presented with an abstract idea is: "How could that ever make a difference?"

While I won't deny that we can look at a theory and be somewhat justified in thinking "This could never conceivably be useful!", I think that the degree to which we are warranted in this judgment is much lower than is commonly thought. Inconceivable today can be possible tomorrow and numerous examples in science and philosophy's history support this claim. Nuclear chain reactions, flight, and useful computation were all declared impossible before they were invented. The track record for denying conceivability is not a good one.

Here are four (although there are many more) examples of abstract ideas that were initially thought to be "Pie in the sky", which later turned out immensely useful.

  1. Information Theory: Information theory, developed by Claude Shannon, deals with the quantification, storage, and communication of information. It initially seemed purely theoretical but later became the foundation for modern communication systems, data compression algorithms, and coding theory.
  1. Topology: Topology, a branch of mathematics that studies properties of space that are preserved under continuous transformations, was considered abstract and detached from real-world applications. However, it has found applications in data analysis, computer vision, robotics, and materials science.
  1. Game Theory: Game theory, the study of mathematical models of strategic interactions between rational decision-makers, emerged as a highly theoretical field. It has found applications in economics, political science, evolutionary biology, and computer science, contributing to understanding decision-making and strategic behavior.
  1. Number Theory: Number theory, a branch of mathematics focused on properties of integers and prime numbers, has been regarded as a purely theoretical field. However, it has become crucial for cryptography, which ensures secure communication and online transactions.

I am aware that these examples are not philosophy-examples. That is ok. For now the point is just that something 'not having a conceivable use' is often a mistaken intuition. This is a defense of abstract ideas and abstract ideas generally, therefore pointing out very obviously useful philosophical ideas (like some of those in the United States Declaration of Independence or that every event must have a cause) is not my main goal here. We will get to some philosophy examples shortly.

The long game of inquiry​

If something has some non-zero chance of being useful later in the game, it is probably worthwhile to invest a small amount into it now. This should be especially obvious for anyone who has played a complex strategy game of any kind where one is always weighing the expected outcome of early-game choices. For even thousands of human beings, in the grand scheme of our species' existence, to spend their lives on something which seems very pedantic at the moment is likely very worthwhile.

Imagine a world, all other things being equal, where we did not have one or more of the above four examples. We may not have the internet as we know it, statistical analysis, mathematical models in biological science, cryptography... the list goes on.

All from subjects where Mundanius might have blurted out -

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Ok what's the point of all of this!

halfway through an exposition of the problem.

Additionally, as I will argue next, abstract belief (say, that numbers really exist or that the mind is not substance-independent from the brain) can drastically influence how we act towards the subject matter.

Wholly "intangible" ideas still influence our behavior​

It is almost impossible to achieve something you believe you cannot do. There are mountains of sports psychology research on positive visualization and creating a confident inner world. It is well understood that this works because a confident mind is at peace and can simply execute with the more-powerful subconscious, without the conscious mind getting in its way. Equally important is the simple notion that we typically don't try to do what we believe is impossible.

For this reason, I think the value of the types of conceptual frameworks abstract philosophy can provide are indispensable to scientific progress. -- But --, some of us want to react, I don't need a 'conceptual framework', I can just go do stuff. This reaction is understandable, but I think it is mistaken. We all start with a conceptual framework. It is just a matter of whether it is well-thought-out or not. Even to just do science we require metaphysical assumptions like "events that are not spatiotemporally connected cannot influence each other" or that "the laws of nature don't change just to mess with us".

I hope the following three examples will show that abstract-seeming ideas have real impact.

Dualism and the Philosophy of Mind​

Whether we believe the mind is an ethereal substance that somehow interacts with the physical world (dualism) or that there is only physical stuff to be studied regarding the mind (physicalism) will have a profound impact on how we study consciousness and how we explain the phenomena.

Let's take something simple, say, brain damage. If we believe the mind is not physical we will spend time explaining how it is possible for brain damage to affect the mind. On the other hand, if we simply think that brain damage should alter the mind because "the mind just is the brain", then we might spend our time studying something completely different.

Can we know if the mind is or is not "just the brain" by any method other than those which we would call philosophical or abstract-thinking?

Effective Altruism​

Whatever your opinions are about effective altruism, it would be difficult to imagine arguing that it has a net-negative impact on the world. The philosophers at the heart of this movement have doubtless spent lots of time contemplating the nature of moral truths and the implications of this or that normative theory of ethics. It was that abstract contemplation that led them to so strongly believe in giving all we can to those less fortunate than us.

When the armchair theory concludes that some actions ought to be taken, it becomes very difficult in my mind to justify the "we shouldn't care" intuition.

Identity and personal identity​

What makes some thing in the world "you"? Can there be two of them? That is a question that does not have an obvious empirical answer if we think about it for more than five seconds. Is it just my brain? Is it my DNA? In a world with rapidly evolving technology, this is a philosophical question that will undoubtedly have profound implications for how we live our lives in the future.

Imagine that you live in a world where it is possible to upload your consciousness to the cloud. Now imagine there are two versions of this world. One where we have a rich philosophical discourse on "what is personal identity" etc. and another world, just like it, except that no one bothered to think about what constitutes personal identity until the very moment we could transfer your entire physical mind to the cloud.

Which world would you rather be uploaded to the cloud in?

Division of labor​

The accusation that something truth-seeking, however pedantic, is "not worth doing" on a planet with nearly 8 billion people on it is a hefty one.

Consider all of the ants in an ant colony. Now imagine you are tasked with designing how they divide up their labor. You are now in the driver's seat of natural selection. You say which ants carry what where and why! I give you an ant colony with 300,000 workers (that's a realistic number based on my googling). You would likely not change their behavior at all, right? Real natural selection has likely already done a much much better job than you could ever do. Now, what if I say there are 6,000,000 workers!? Should we assume that the same distribution of tasks is the most efficient? Clearly not.

I am arguing that if we are judging the alleged productivity of an activity relative to the furtherance of our species, that it had better scale with our numbers and take into the marginal utility it might have.

At some colony size, it pays to have worker-ant-philosophers diddling away their time wondering if tunnels can be built infinitely down or if their evolutionarily-built-in picture of the world is accurate.

Abstract concepts enrich understanding​

I think it is pretty uncontroversial that the more one understands a piece of art, the deeper the experience of its value. In case you doubt that, FΓΌr Elise was written for a woman that did not want to marry Beethoven. Next time you hear it, I'll bet you will remember that and it will strike you differently.

I believe this notion of increased understanding enriching our experience of a thing applies generally to the world as a whole. Ok, but what about abstract ideas enriches experience? Knowing how a hummingbird's muscles can sustain the absurd rate at which it flaps its wings enriches my experience of watching the hummingbird out the window, but how does knowing whether or not, say, any non-physical things exist enrich my experience?

I argue that it does in the same way. Whichever you believe "it's all physical" or "there are X kinds of stuff", you observe something in the world and can experience awe at the simplicity or complexity of the underlying reality. At least it has certainly felt that way to me.


I hope these short arguments have done something to show that a lot of the criticisms of abstract thought, mostly philosophy, are either expecting too much, not looking forward enough, not seeing how concepts influence other realms of inquiry, and/or are missing out on the enrichment that abstract ideas can provide.

It is on the makers and conveyors of abstract ideas to ask and be ready to be asked the "Who cares?" question and it is on those who do not think some abstract reasoning is worthwhile to show that it really is just playing in the sandbox and has no general application beyond reasonable doubt. I think that the examples above, the expected utility of abstract ideas, and the fact that we live in a world where we have a surplus of human specializations, all justify this shift in the burden of proof.