Jobs for philosophers revisited

Jerry asked:

I’m a 22 year old university student, double-majoring in philosophy and computer science, about to enter my senior year. I find my philosophy classes intellectually stimulating and enjoyable, my computer science classes somewhat difficult and tedious. Wary of the job market for philosophers, my original plan was to find work in the computer science field, but this prospect is becoming less appealing with each course. Can you offer any guidance for a would-be philosopher looking to make himself employable in the real world?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I wrote an answer on this topic a while ago (see That would have been before the ‘Ask a Philosopher’ WordPress site was launched, around 2011. So it’s worth looking at the question again.

You can compare this answer with the previous one. I said then, ‘There seems to me something very wrong with society. Our values are all screwed up. Materialism is rampant. But if you want to swim against the stream, be aware that it is not an easy option.’ However, let’s assume that you want a decent-sized family, not to mention a nice family car, a good standard of living, in other words a good income.

So far as employability is concerned you’d be surprised to learn that Philosophy is right up there with the wide range of jobs in computing. You’d have to make more of an effort to sell yourself to an employer, make the case why your training in Philosophy is useful to them. An ad agency, for example. Or commodities trading. Could you do it? Do you relish the challenge? All that’s required is self-belief and a modicum of chutzpah.

You’re not seriously considering an academic career, are you? Please, don’t. One of the great scandals of the academic world is the slag heap of wasted talent, Philosophy PhDs hired for a year, or two at the most, then unable to get a job because university departments are on a tight budget and either can’t commit to a longer-term post, or, more cynically, can get the pick of the latest crop of PhDs for less money.

Philosophy and computing looks like a promising combination for the AI field. Problem is, the AI people need ‘true believers’, they don’t want to hear all the reasons why their project might end in abject failure. The mentality, ‘If it walks and quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck,’ prevails regardless of the fact that, in principle, a Turing Test can be beaten with a large enough look-up table or Eliza program.

Philosophy has always had a use for logic, but logic worshippers have no place in philosophy. Sad to say, the discipline is dying now because of a lack of imagination and a surfeit of ‘logic’.

I say, stick to your guns but put as much effort as you can into your computer science classes. Don’t look for an easy way out. It’s always good to have a second string!

The case for Mystery

Santi asked:

In my view, the most fundamental question is whether there is Mystery or not, by which I mean whether one believes that the closing of the circle of ‘perfect’ knowledge (Laplacian-style) is achievable, which is no less ‘perfect’ for including probabilistic or non-deterministic laws, and of course I mean achievable not just to us (humans) but to any conceivable intelligence with any conceivable technology.

I don’t think the closing of the circle of perfect knowledge is achievable. Thus, I believe in Mystery. I know this belief is an article of faith, based only on intuition, however ‘obvious’ this intuition may be to me. I am aware that it is just a personal preference. How could people holding the contrary view say their view is not based on ‘faith’ and believe in a theory of everything? What are the premises or axioms a theory of everything should be based on? Are they not articles of faith ultimately? Shouldn’t one have to ‘step outside’ of everything to be able to confirm it is everything?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

If you are looking for something that can never be known, all you need to do is shake a pair of dice in a closed cup. Then shake them again. What was the number of that first shake? We know that it was between 2 (a pair of 1s) and 12 (two 6s). Beyond that, we enter the realm of the Unknowable.

Should we care? Yes, if the question is about the nature of Truth because what that simple experiment shows is that we are committed to a notion of truth that transcends all possible verification. ‘The dice fell on 7,’ I say, knowing that what I said might be true — or it might not. No-one will never know.

(If you want to imagine some improbable scenario about invisible aliens or miraculous angels, or a tiny video camera inside the cup go ahead but then you’ve changed the initial conditions of the experiment.)

A Laplacian Supermind is impossible if current physical theory is correct because of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. So you can put that aside. But what about a Theory of Everything?

I’m on your side with this.

The theory Einstein searched for in vain, the theory that the thousands of CERN researchers still hope for, may be achievable — who knows? I wish them the best of luck. But suppose we had that theory. What could possibly explain YOUR existence? I don’t mean the person whose parents named them ‘Santi’, the person who wrote the interesting question about Mystery. I mean YOU.

YOU might not have existed, everything else in the universe remaining the same. Nothing could conceivably explain (and I include all ‘God’ stories and the like) why there is YOU rather than no-YOU.

I don’t hold this view as a matter of faith. It’s a matter of simple proof (as I remarked in a previous answer, a proof relying an Ancient Greek principle, ‘Ou Mallon’ or ‘Insufficient Reason’). Given two identical universes, there is no more reason why YOU should exist in one universe rather than the other universe.

Regardless of what we might one day know or not know about the universe, YOU exist without reason.

That’s what I call Mystery.