The Unexpected Uselessness of Philosophy

by Steve Sailer, 12/29/1999

Steve Sailer ( is president of the Human Biodiversity Institute and Adjunct Fellow of the Hudson Institute.

       Is there a more prestigious job title than “philosopher”? Yet, in what other profession has more brainpower made less progress? In his last book, Nobel Laureate physicist Steven Weinberg pointedly titled two chapters “The Unexpected Usefulness of Mathematics” and “The Unexpected Uselessness of Philosophy.” Even the most esoteric math has helped him describe the cosmos. But the only value Weinberg ever found in reading philosophers was when they refuted other philosophers who had clouded his mind. While engineers or farmers or bartenders have all learned a trick or two over the years, philosophers mostly either rehash the same old mistakes or dream up new ones that are even more ridiculous.
       To this day, most philosophers suffer from Plato’s disease: the assumption that reality fundamentally consists of abstract essences best described by words or geometry. (In truth, reality is largely a probabilistic affair best described by statistics.) Today’s postmodern philosophers deny the very existence of science, nature and truth, largely because their favorite verbal abstraction of “equality” is undermined by the brute statistical reality of human biological differences. The philosopher Richard Rorty recently informed us in Atlantic Monthly that “ ‘The homosexual,’ ‘the Negro,’ and ‘the female’ are best seen not as inevitable classifications of human beings but rather as inventions that have done more harm than good.” Therefore, according to Rorty, many deconstructionists “go on to suggest that quarks and genes probably are [inventions] too.” You have to be as eminent a philosopher as Rorty to believe that the category of “the female” is a mere social convention. Deconstructionism is the result of philosophers being shocked to learn that reality is not Platonic (e.g., races are no more sharply defined than are extended families) and thus deciding to give up believing in reality rather than in Platonism.
       Fortunately, one school of philosophy has actually taught us some valuable lessons over the centuries: the anti-abstract British tradition of Roger Bacon, Francis Bacon and David Hume, with its emphasis on realism, common sense and the scientific method. One of the last of this great line was the blunt-spoken Australian David Stove. Roger Kimball has collected the late philosopher’s often hilarious and always politically impious essays in a new anthology titled Against the Idols of the Age.
       Stove simply shreds his fellow philosophers. He turns his flamethrower on those “absolutely effortless pseudo-discoveries that philosophers make, and on which their fame rests.” For instance, “Plato’s discovery of ‘universals’ went as follows: ‘It is possible for something to be a certain way and for something else to be the same way. So, there are universals!’ (Tumultuous applause, which lasts 2,400 years.)”
       The British empirical school, however, tends to lose its finest pupils to more practical trades, just as the few performance artists who can connect with the outside world, like Andy Kaufman or David Byrne, shun the narrow playpen of performance art in order to expand the boundaries of comedy or rock. Similarly, Hume’s friend Adam Smith left moral philosophy to become the first great economist. Political philosopher James Madison got roped into writing the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights and being president. Stove, though, stuck it out in the philosophy racket, and even he was susceptible to his field’s failings, as becomes clear when he turns from purely philosophical issues to ones of sociology and science.
       For instance, he begins one chapter, “I believe that the intellectual capacity of women is on the whole inferior to that of men.” This is brave, but is it true? Fortunately, IQ researchers have amassed much statistical evidence on this question since 1912, when Cyril Burt first noticed that males and females had the same average test scores. Unfortunately, Stove uses none of it. While his reasoning is impressive, it is also in the Grand Tradition of Western Philosophy: namely, almost 100% fact-free. (Elsewhere, Stove readily admits that philosophers “have no more knowledge of any matter that could serve as the premises of their reasonings than the next man has.”) But even worse than ignoring statistical data, philosophers seldom understand statistical logic. In this case, for example, while the IQs of men and women are equal on average, men’s IQs are more variable. Thus, as any woman could testify, there are more really stupid men. But, there are also far more male geniuses.
       Stove flagrantly exhibits philosophers’ worst trait—emphasizing verbal abstractions over statistical tendencies—when he ill-advisedly attacks the grandest offshoot of his own school of British empiricism, Darwinism, which he calls a “mere festering mass of errors.”
       For example, Richard Dawkins’ famous 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, describes how the genes that proliferate the most are those that most successfully induce their host organisms (e.g., us) to make copies of them (e.g., by making babies). Stove gives endless reasons why genes should not be called “selfish.” Some of his arguments are sensible. (Although some are remarkably obtuse, such as when he scoffs that if Dawkins were right, somebody could make a fortune replicating images of Elvis Presley. Apparently, Stove never visited Graceland’s gift shop). But, ultimately, so what? That our language lacks the perfect adjective to describe this tendency—“selfish” really isn’t all that bad, but “dynastic” might be better, and in the future “Dawkinsian” might prove best—is a shortcoming of English, not of neo-Darwinism.
       Similarly, Stove’s attacks on Charles Darwin consist of isolating the most overstated phrases in Darwin’s work, then proving them “false” by citing exceptions. This is pointless because exceptions can disprove only abstract laws, not statistical tendencies—something Stove himself points out when criticizing Popper’s theory of falsifiability as the basis of science. (It is, he argues, a species of perfectionism.) For example, Stove claims that Darwin “first went wrong about man” when he became impressed by economist Thomas Malthus’ notion that humans always strive to maximize their numbers. But, to cite one of Stove’s many examples, doesn’t “fondness for alcohol” interfere?
       Now, it’s an open empirical question whether drink diminishes the quantity of mating. When I was a bachelor, bartenders repeatedly assured me of the contrary. Still, at least in my case, their advice seldom panned out, so let’s assume for the moment that Stove is right. What we see, then, is another triumph of Darwinism as an explanatory tool. Mediterranean peoples such as Jews and Italians, who have been drinking wine for 10,000 years, have evolved impressive genetic and cultural defences against becoming alcoholics. In contrast, Northern Europeans, who first obtained alcohol only a few millennia ago, haven’t fully adapted genetically to alcohol yet, and thus must often turn to cruder cultural responses like teetotalling, prohibition and the Betty Ford Clinic. Finally, those racial groups unfortunate enough not to taste alcohol and other sugar-based products until the last few centuries, such as the First Nations peoples of Canada and the Australian Aborigines, are currently being devastated by alcoholism, tooth decay and diabetes.
       Philosophers of the world, get real! You have nothing to lose but your irrelevance.