Can There Be Understanding With Questions Only Or Don’t We Need Answers At Least Sometimes?

Damon Linker’s criticism of science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent anti-philosophy statements begs the question I’m afraid. I want philosophy to win on this one, but I don’t think Linker has managed to pull off making the case.

We could conceive the main beef to be about whether asking unanswerable questions is worthwhile. That’s what Tyson seemed to take the main issue to be. Between the lines, if not more explicitly, he demonstrated that he values answers. He equates understanding with coming up with answers. And, naturally, he considers understanding worthwhile, although that valorization remains between the lines.

Linker’s response is great up to a point. He says that philosophy is about posing “searching questions” and we might give it to him that it’s about asking better and better questions, even though they may remain unanswered and even unanswerable.

But then he says the following:

If what you crave is answers, the study of philosophy in this sense can be hugely frustrating and unsatisfying. But if you want to understand yourself as well as the world around you — including why you’re so impatient for answers, and progress, in the first place — then there’s nothing more thrilling and gratifying than training in philosophy and engaging with its tumultuous, indeterminate history.

So, Linker equates value with understanding too. And he says that you can achieve understanding by posing better and better questions. But whether you can or not was the issue at hand. Tyson says the worthwhile understanding of the world means asking questions and arriving at answers. Linker says the worthwhile understanding of the world means asking better and better questions even in the absence of answers. But if your opponent has said X, it is not yet an argument to just assert not-X. Linker certainly disagrees with with Tyson on the fundamental issue at hand. But he has given no argument, that I can see, why understanding consists of asking better and better questions even in the absence of answers. He’s just said or asserted that it does.

And, after all, doesn’t it seem that understanding is going to take some answers at some point?

Linker seems to recognize this possibility when he acknowledges that many defenders of philosophy will try to argue that philosophy makes progress, which I understand as philosophy does arrive at a few answers sometimes. Even though the biggest part of the philosophical project is the asking of better and better questions which may not always arrive at answers, philosophy must have eventually arrived at some answer or answers to really be said to “understand” something.

If philosophy is just a critical method then it cannot be said to provide understanding. It may sharpen the understanding you get when the better questions it poses get answered, say by science. But philosophy conceived of as unrelenting criticism, questioning and critique, does not arrive at understanding on its own.

Might philosophy so conceived, a universal wolf, at last eat up itself?