A Harvard Medical School professor makes the case for philosophy

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post Dr. David Silbersweig made the case for the value of a liberal arts education and in particular a philosophy education. Dr. Silbersweig is the Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Co-Director of the Institute for the Neurosciences at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Stanley Cobb Professor of psychiatry and Academic Dean at Harvard Medical School. As a professional philosopher I found his piece interesting and I’d like to summarize his piece and comment on it.
Silbersweig begins by remembering how much he enjoyed being an undergraduate philosophy major and how philosophy,

has informed and provided a methodology for everything I have done since. If you can get through a one-sentence paragraph of Kant, holding all of its ideas and clauses in juxtaposition in your mind, you can think through most anything. If you can extract, and abstract, underlying assumptions or superordinate principles, or reason through to the implications of arguments, you can identify and address issues in a myriad of fields.

Originally drawn to issues in the philosophy of mind, he quickly realized that he needed to study the brain to understand the mind. And wanting to help those who suffered mentally, he realized the need to study medicine. Philosophy had led him to his profession. Moreover his interest in Eastern philosophy, “with its focus on the development of the mind to achieve well-being” led him to study behavioral neuroscience and eventually to the study of both psychiatry or neurology.

Further study abroad confirmed that specialists “without a liberal arts foundation, while often brilliant, generally had a narrower perspective.” But those with such foundations had “certain insights and nimbleness of thought” that those whose training was more vocation did not. Now Silbersweig has come full circle. “Through studies, writings, and symposia, I have been able to bring the knowledge and perspective of my fields to timeless and timely problems in philosophy of mind, including free will, consciousness, meaning, religious experience and self.”

His recent experience teaching “an advanced philosophy of mind seminar at Harvard,” led to the realization of how much his scientific training aided students who asked posed sophisticated  philosophical questions but who “were unknowingly misguided by virtue of being under-informed by data.” So philosophical inquiry is valuable, especially if scientific truth informs it. To solve the most desperate problems facing our world, we need minds that find novel solutions, mind informed by both philosophy and science. As Silbersweig concludes:

We need to foster and protect academic environments in which a broad, integrated, yet still deep education can flourish. They are our national treasure and a strategic asset, whether some politicians would recognize that, or not — and philosophy is foundational, whether my old dentist would appreciate it or not.

Reflections – All of this reminds me of lessons I learned from my mentor in graduate school, Richard J. Blackwell. Professor Blackwell,  who had done graduate work in both philosophy and physics, told me that  good philosophy must be informed by science. Dr. Silbersweig piece also reminded my of the work of Jean Piaget, who in his book, Jean Piaget: Selected Works: Insights and Illusions of Philosophy, wrote this:

It was while teaching philosophy that I saw how easily one can say … what one wants to say … In fact, I became particularly aware of the dangers of speculation … It’s a natural tendency. It’s so much easier than digging out facts. You sit in your office and build a system. It’s wonderful. But with my training in biology, I felt this kind of undertaking was precarious.1

Philosophical speculation raises questions, but it cannot provide answers; answers are found only in testing and experimentation. Knowledge presupposes verification, and verification attains only by mutually agreed-upon controls. Unfortunately, philosophers do not usually have experience in inductive and experimental verification. As Piaget put it:

Young philosophers because they are made to specialize immediately on entering the university in a discipline which the greatest thinkers in the history of philosophy have entered only after years of scientific investigations, believe they have immediate access to the highest regions of knowledge, when neither they nor sometimes their teachers have the least experience of what it is to acquire and verify a specific piece of knowledge.2

But how did it happen that philosophy became so separate from the scientific method? Piaget traces this separation to the 19th century, when philosophy came to believe that it possessed a “suprascientific” knowledge. This split was disastrous for philosophy, as it retreated  into its own world, lost its hold on the intellectual imagination, and had its credibility questioned. For Piaget, philosophy is synonymous with science or reflection upon science, and philosophy uniformed by science cannot find truth; at most it provides subjective wisdom. In fact, philosophy is not even about truth; it is about meaning and values.

But while philosophical speculation without scientific understanding is limited, so too is vocational or scientific understanding uninformed by philosophical understanding and reflection. And this is ultimately Silbersweig’s point. One can take blood pressure or perform surgery as a mere technician. But medicine, like so many fields, develops when minds think and see anew.  When they philosophize. I am happy to have lived a life in which thinking played a significant role.

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