Wrong to dismiss philosophy as 'armchair reasoning'

Philosophy has been mischaracterised by many who are not familiar with the history and development of the field.

It is the foundation of human thought, and to simply dismiss it as "armchair reasoning" is an error (Think carefully about philosophy in schools by Mr Ben Gibran; April 13).

Almost all of science has its roots in natural philosophy. Almost all doctorates awarded by universities are doctorates of philosophy because the frontier of human knowledge and enlightenment is a branch of philosophy, no matter how remote.

To bring the discussion back into the classroom, we ask if questions such as "the nature of reality" are relevant for Singaporean students.

The answer to me is unequivocally "yes" because in questions like these, we confront what we have been brought up to believe as self-evident truths, or in philosophy-speak, a priori information.

It is because of a willingness to question even the most obvious questions that Albert Einstein was able to put forth his theory of relativity.

Time and space are now relative concepts, dependent on what physicists term as "frames of reference". Such an understanding allows us to have ever more accurate Global Positioning System locations, to name just one instance.

The field of jurisprudence rests on philosophical understanding and appreciation of natural justice, morality and the social contract - all ideas put forth by philosophers.

A more recent example is the ubiquitous "trolley problem", a thought experiment in philosophy, used to guide the programming of autonomous vehicles. For instance, is it ever justifiable to crash a car, killing the owner, to protect the lives of five jaywalkers?

Or, what does it say about our morality if we have offensive robots on the battlefield making the decision for threat elimination autonomously?

Although these are difficult questions and require competent teachers to convey the subtleties of the issues involved, questioning whether these questions would be fairly treated in the classroom is misguided.

A distrust of the educational system should not be the basis to restrict academic exploration.

Issues in the world are rarely black or white, but in shades of grey. A lucid mind to contemplate modern issues requires a solid training in philosophy, and there is nowhere more appropriate to begin than in our classrooms.

Chua Meng Shuen

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2017, with the headline 'Wrong to dismiss philosophy as 'armchair reasoning''. Print Edition | Subscribe