The obvious, philosophy's purpose, and industry change.

There was this cool interview with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein from The Atlantic a couple months ago about philosophy and its usefulness in a world where there is science.

Philosophy vs Science

This is what she has to say:

There’s the claim that the only progress made is in posing problems that scientists can answer. That philosophy never has the means to answer problems—it’s just biding its time till the scientists arrive on the scene. You hear this quite often. There is, among some scientists, a real anti-philosophical bias. The sense that philosophy will eventually disappear. But there’s a lot of philosophical progress, it’s just a progress that’s very hard to see. It’s very hard to see because we see with it. We incorporate philosophical progress into our own way of viewing the world. Plato would be constantly surprised by what we know. And not only what we know scientifically, or by our technology, but what we know ethically. We take a lot for granted. It’s obvious to us, for example, that individual’s ethical truths are equally important. Things like class and gender and religion and ethnicity don’t matter insofar as individual rights go. That would never have occurred to him. He makes an argument in The Republic that you need to treat all Greeks in the same way. It never occurs to him that you would treat barbarians (non-Greeks) the same way.

It’s amazing how long it takes us, but we do make progress. And it’s usually philosophical arguments that first introduce the very outlandish idea that we need to extend rights. And it takes more, it takes a movement, and activism, and emotions, to affect real social change. It starts with an argument, but then it becomes obvious. The tracks of philosophy’s work are erased because it becomes intuitively obvious. The arguments against slavery, against cruel and unusual punishment, against unjust wars, against treating children cruelly—these all took arguments.

Philosophy has the difficult task of identifying moral direction, which is something that science cannot do. It’s not even clear even how science would go about identifying even the most basic of moral claims, like the wrongness of slavery or the rights of man regardless of race or sex. Philosophy has the hard task of being first; the first to make an argument in an area of ambiguity and the first to be overlooked once the argument eventually becomes obvious and accepted.

Startups and technological advances seem to go through a similar arc as philosophical arguments. Startups – especially ones that seemed like unpopular longshots from the beginning like Foursquare, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and Zynga – and their success only seem obvious in retrospect. From the outset, these startups seemed to inhabit the same precarious role as philosophy: the first in uncharted territory, against the views of a large % of the population, and unproven POC.

It’s only years later that the leaders of the movement are named visionaries. It’s only years later that the movement itself seemed obvious all along. It’s only years later that people are scratching their heads, wondering why they didn’t think of the ideas years earlier. Norms take time to develop, and the world is forever changed by them, but they are anything but obvious from the outset.

I look around the Orbital group and the teachers, I wonder which ones have ideas that have to be the potential of being obvious years later. I really liked a few of the ideas around the room: a more interactive programming learning/educational tool, a forum that offers more on-point and real-time relationship/love advice, and higher-quality and immersive video games. My own idea involves elements of time-banking (a service swapping model that involves time sharing and not money), but I hope to restrict it to higher quality services and have it centered around learning and recreation. In short, my thesis is that people enjoy meeting people, learning, and recreation, and that there are problems with current offerings like Skillshare and GA (illiquid marketplace resulting in less two-sided transactions and fewer attractive course offerings).

As I continue to work in my career (professional poker, day-trading, derivatives market-making, non-profit fundraising, tennis coaching, startup work at Kitchensurfing), I have begun to see how each of these industries will change through time and I wonder which of these changes will be obvious. Manual day-trading seems like it’s already a profession of the past: traders still believe they have significant edge in markets that are quickly becoming run by more advanced and more systematic algorithms and data analysts. Programmers are desired for their hard skillsets everywhere. In a few years, where will these industries and professions stand? Which ones will not stand the test of time and which ones will emerge and seem as inevitable transformations in the process?

The world is obviously changing at an accelerated rate and I wonder what conditions and industries will eventually become obsolete and which transformations will seem obvious in hindsight.

Written on February 1, 2014