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Problems of idealism; Is there such a thing as an unnecessary question?

As the old age sentiment goes, "Dear student, there is no such thing as a dumb question."

I think most of us would agree that in fact there most definitely is. Throughout the average day we might come across a few of these redundant, repetitive, or intentionally idiot,/misleading (yes, some people ask obvious questions for reasons other than actually wanting to know the answer) ramblings spouted by our coworkers, students, peers, etc. For example, there is always the individual in a meeting or classroom that, for some reason, always seems to miss the direction or content of every other sentence.

These instances aside, though, could there possibly be this sort of phenomena occurring in philosophical discourse?

The types of questions I am referring to merit the labeling of "philosophical mind games." We can look to the instances of most of our first encounters with "philosophical thinking" for examples of what I'm speaking about; "Whoa bro, what would happen if I took a picture, of a picture, of a picture?, or "What if we're all dreaming right now and when we think we're having dreams, we're having dreams within dreams?". These youthful utterances are usually followed by the phrase "That's deep."

Admittedly, the first encounters with infinite regressions spark the intellectual engines and we have ridden into more sophisticated scopes of inquiry. I must also note that the philosophical spirit of questioning is very valuable and I in no way am arguing for the lack of this or diminishment of creativity.

But I find these sorts of questions quite dangerous when used for the foundation of philosophical paradigms. Solipsism, for eg., by exploiting perceptive limitation, comes to the ridiculous conclusion that there is nothing outside of ourselves. This similarly occurs with argument for idealism.

Could we not entertain these ideas as students of philosophy and critical thinkers without taking them any more seriously than a critical thinking exercise?

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  • Sep 10 2013: Necessity is a function of the prevailing conditions, not an absolute marker. We can only evaluate the necessity (or validity, or relevance) of a question if we can understand the context in which it is asked. Is the questioner a child? If not exactly a child, what is the questioner's level of sophistication or maturity? What is the purpose of the question? How does that purpose meet the needs of the situation in which it is asked? Who gets to make the determination that a particular question in a particular circumstance is necessary or appropriate?

    One of the first steps in any philosophical inquiry (or, for that matter any scientific, aesthetic, moral/ethical, or pragmatic inquiry) is to determine the parameters, to define and qualify the boundaries. This not only provides a basis for identifying necessary and appropriate questions, it provides a basis for further discussion, criticism, and re-examination of the process and conclusions of the inquiry.
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      Sep 10 2013: Yes, David, I know.
      I realize that the comments below are lengthy and that you might have not had the to skim through them, but let me clarify the context for which, in this case, i'm asserting that questions that lead to fantastical flapdoodle are unnecessary ones. Let's not play semantics with this one, David.

      Here are the conditions by which, and have discussed in other comments, I am arguing that these sorts of questions are, if not unnecessary (they might be if we argue that by definition, philosophy asks us to consider all sides) they are counterproductive.

      Although I used many examples throughout the comments, let's use Deepak Chopra's "Quantum quackery" for this example:

      1) The questioner isn't a child.
      2) The questioners self-proclaimed level of sophistication is at the highest level in academia, a doctorate degree--although, his degree is in Endocrinology and not Physics. He also claims to have Philosophical merit at the highest degree. (Deepak is a generalization for many mystics I have encountered. I have 3 professors at my university who spout the same non-sense about Quantum Theory but have not even the slightest clue about the physics behind their claims.)
      3)Purpose: to undermine Western Science's Materialism, to confabulate Eastern Spirituality and Western Science (Physics) in order to promote New Age mysticism, In Deepak's case--to make millions off of book sales and lectures off of his bestselling alternative to traditional religion.
      4)"Who gets to determine that a particular question in a particular circumstance..." Well, because Mystics invoke both philosophy and western science to support their claims, the authority within the discipline gets to make this determination. The authority in both these circumstances happen to be a community of people rather than an individual.

      David, your definition of inquiry is great. It is thorough , clear, and concise. I agree with you fully.
      Now that I have defined the parameters, where do you stand?
      • Sep 10 2013: I don't think it's "playing semantics" to point out what I see as a problem with how the question is asked. (To be honest, though, I am retired professor of communication with a particular interest in semantics.) The questions I asked were, of course, illustrative, not exhaustive with respect to possible considerations of context.
        There is still the reality that different authorities within any discipline might disagree as to the relevance or validity or need of any question or the argued answers to that question. It is the rare thinker, however, who can understand the complexities of significantly different disciplines well enough to effectively combine them. This doesn't mean that the questions are necessarily ridiculous or nonsensical, only that they need scrutiny that has the same kinds of cross-disciplinary expertise they claim as support.
        I guess what I'm saying is that I have no quarrel with your criticism of the specific questions or arguments when you ground those criticisms in your disciplinary perspective. I might argue, though, that it is not the questions that are at fault it is the shallowness or bias or lack of intellectual honesty of the questioners that wastes our time.
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          Sep 10 2013: David,

          I concede on the issue with the wording. Another TED commentator made this same point.

          "...it is not the questions that are at fault it is the shallowness or bias or lack of intellectual honestly of the questioners that wastes our time."

          This is perfect, David. It encapsulates what is essentially my point. The reason I had to tread carefully, though, is because i'm accustomed to arguing with people who won't admit that some extrapolations of philosophy and science are ridiculous in the first place. At that point i run into relativist and pluralists who refuse to scrutinize anyone. If you see what I mean, I am used to having to jump multiple hurdles before even discussing criticism within a context-whether it be an academic discipline or not. I must say I am quite excited to be speaking with someone who places the same value on intellectual honesty and coherence-as you demonstrated in your first post and description above.

          Again, I concede to the lack of clarity in the question itself.

          Thanks David,
          Shawn
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    Sep 7 2013: Rhetoric, Logic's high-strung sibling, is replete with examples of redundant, verbose, extraneous, surreptitiously manipulative applications of language. Most assuredly there are unnecessary questions. I propose this example of an unnecessary (rhetorical) question: "If there were no unnecessary questions then all questions would, by definition, be necessary. Thus no subject could be epistemologically validated because it is not possible to know every question which could be asked. So, isn't Solopsism validated by the irrationality of the existence of unnecessary questions?"
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      Sep 7 2013: "So, isn't Solopsism validated by the irrationality of the existence of unnecessary questions?"

      I would say that Solipsism is a way for idealist and (some) contemplatives to cling on to the value of subjectivity in the face of objectivity. As Bertrand Russell mentioned, there is really no reason to believe that things external to your subjectivity do not exist.

      I'm with Shawn on this one, I think there can be some philosophical questions that are great to get the mind thinking but really serves no purpose to philosophy (or the world). Such questions are great for critical thinking but I don't think it should be taken seriously outside the classroom.
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        Sep 7 2013: I posed the question about Solopsism as an example of an unnecessary question, not as an argument for what I believe.
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      Sep 7 2013: Edward,

      1) I find your insight quite on the nature of language and logic quite compelling, but I must admit that I didn't expect anyone to take too seriously the beginning part of my post.
      To ask you a question though; would it be sound to assert that a multiplicity of outcomes, or at least the possibility of multiple answers-one right? and many wrong-for questions concerning the natural world for example, be necessary? At least in conventional epistemology. And does the necessity of possibilities in epistemology necessitate the existence or possibility naturally, physically, or metaphysically?


      2) As for the discussion I was expecting to have on this topic, I was pressing the issue of questioning physicality. This is very common in debates on modern mysticism and idealism that I'm sure you're aware of. Do we have any reason, other than by merit of necessarily assuming that antitheses exist, for doubting physicality?
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        Sep 7 2013: I fail to see how the question, "Is there such a thing as an unnecessary question?" invites comments on physicality. I misinterpreted the topic. I am outta here! Sorry for the distraction.
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          Sep 7 2013: I'm asserting that questioning materialism is an unnecessary question. Therefore physicality is in question.
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        Sep 8 2013: RE: "I'm asserting that. . .". OK, I lied, I'm not outta here. Do you agree it would clarify this debate to rephrase your question to something like: "Is Materialism Unassailable?". I think you would get more succinct repsponses. Do you believe Materialism is unassailable?
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          Sep 8 2013: I agree, as I replied to Fritzie above, that the question should have been asked differently. I explained that this was a reposted question that was previously on my blog and which was written for a very different audience.

          No. It clearly is. What i'm asserting Is that after taking materialism into thorough consideration and understanding our perceptual shortcomings, we can then entertain solipsism, idealism, mysticism, etc. and immediately realize that we've gone far off track,
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        Sep 8 2013: RE: "I agree. . . ". Sorry to make you repeat yourself. I should read all the responses, but I don't always. Aha! The Holy Grail of Epistemology-- "...after taking materialism into thorough consideration and understanding our perceptual shortcomings...". When will I ever fathom my perceptual shortcomings? When will I perform a thorough consideration of anything? Someday perhaps. For now I see through a glass darkly. How far off-track I am at any moment is no easier to learn than the necessary answers I seek. This is a debate and my argument is that consistent application of information I accept as Justified True Belief supports the conclusion that consciousness is linked to the Material, and the assertions of opposing arguments are categorically irrational.
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          Sep 8 2013: I think I can agree that some position of optimal awareness is unlikely, but do we need this in order to rule out the possibility of Idealism?

          I'm afraid i'm in the dark when it comes to your system of thought. Seems like you have your own approach to knowledge. Could you elaborate?
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        Sep 8 2013: RE: "I think I can agree. . . ". Well, if you are in the dark then we may not be that far apart! I have no system of thought. My go-to reference for philosophy debates and conversations is http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/linguistics-and-philosophy/24-00-problems-in-philosophy-fall-2010/lecture-notes/
        AND http://plato.stanford.edu/
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    Sep 8 2013: Yet if we know how to identify philosophical paradigms and learned to question them, I don't see any danger in those at all. By this we can freely dive into them and choose what sparks our own philosophical interest to reflect on it.

    This way is becomes less likely to get stuck into pit-falls of any paradigm in general, which to me is one of the basic qualities a 'critical thinker' develops.

    On infinite regressions it may just help to take a look into fractal geometry, or the next cauliflower on our plates to enjoy its beauty (and taste) and this without the risk of getting 'loop trapped' ... :o)
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      Sep 8 2013: Lejan,

      "Yet if we know how to identify...and learned to question them, I don't see any danger in them at all."

      The problem here, then, is not you and I failing to see that some of these paradigms are faulty, but that they continued without sufficient scrutiny. Not necessarily philosophers, who are subject to peer review, etc., but those popularizing sorts that are hijacking philosophy and science in order to support the principles of their self-help conferences.
      Furthermore, these Mystics and Idealism are self-proclaimed academics and philosophers. Here, I think it is the duty of the philosophical and scientific community to protect it's integrity.

      "this way it becomes less likely to get stuck..."
      Absolutely. But we have to be careful here. We cannot immediately assume that paradigms other than are own are erroneous and lack rigor by the implication that critical thinkers would know better. Some of the Idealists and mystic I'm taking issue with are incredible rigorous and intelligent.
      So how is it we can criticize these individuals? Especially in the instance that they deny a material universe?
      If they do not accept science or logic what language could we possibly speak in to persuade them of their errors?
      This is why I find the questioning itself so problematic. It allows for these types on individuals to develop all-encompassing systems which are irrefutable due to tricky wording and awkward premises and we lose them forever.
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        Sep 9 2013: Peer review in philosophy as a 'duty of the philosophical and scientific community to protect it's integrity.'?

        That would be a soft framing for hard censorship!

        Philosophy is about the freedom of minds and the right to be wrong while using this freedom.

        It is about dispute and argumentation for those who are interested in it, and to exchange minds on subjects which can not be captured and examined under reproducible lab conditions.

        Philosophy is opinion, points of view constructed and argued on belief and therefore no subject to run our true/false algorithms on them.

        Don't try to persuade those whose 'errors' can only be supposed and therefore impossible to be proven.

        Just don't feel threatened by 'these types of individuals' if you don't share their views. Don't try to keep them. Stay friendly, and let them go ...

        Thats the beauty of pluralism!
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          Sep 9 2013: 1) I think you misunderstand the goal of philosophy
          2) Freedom, yes. Intellectual Dishonestly, no. Calibrated by the discipline. IF psychics and new age "woo-woo"- as Michael Shermer calls- wasn't trying to be passed off as philosophy or science, I'd have no issue with it. Other than, of course, it's deliberate manipulation of individuals, their emotions, and their money.
          3) Relativism is more dangerous than you might think.
          4) Relativism and pluralism aren't interchangeable for "tolerance"
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        Sep 9 2013: Fair enough for you to disagree with me.
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      Sep 9 2013: how about to give an absolute definition to the ethics for might give a real definition to the critics.
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        Sep 9 2013: An absolute definition on ethics denies its very nature, its necessity for change, on which criticism is a vital and valid motivator.

        And who would be able to define such undefinable?
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          Sep 9 2013: an ethical critics can be an absolute ethics for the critics and us.
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        Sep 9 2013: By my understanding of ethics and the meaning of absolute I can not agree on what you said, but if the concept of an 'absolute ethics' comforts you, thats fine with me.
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          Sep 9 2013: i thank you for your compassion to the absolute but the flexibillity is needed here more Sir,how about *an ethical flexibilty to the critics which make it an absolute flexible ethics for the critics ?
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        Sep 9 2013: 'Absolute flexible ethics'? Agreed! :o)
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          Sep 9 2013: thank you for your flexibility it's like first just our principals for the absolute ,it's look like perfection ,what we are far from it like human but it can be perfect from us together one day :)
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        Sep 9 2013: Its 'us together' what I wish for us humans, which doesn't mean to become all the same. :o)
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          Sep 10 2013: a lovely joke can be better than biggest dream :)
  • Sep 13 2013: You have something against metaphysics i see :P

    I think we need more inefficiency in our current society, we often do much without a thought of why or a time to reflect on what has been done.

    I agree with you if you are seeking a balance been unproductive thought and productive action, if you exist in a constant state of inquiry you are not going to the next necessary step of experimentation which necessitates a "solution" to the inquiry.
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    Sep 8 2013: change the topic plz ,cause philosophy without critical to everythings it's like kidding !,even your talk can be philosophical your suggestion * don't take it seriously* i'll not take your talk suriously like same what you will doing i wish and if you don't believe me ask Kant :)
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      Sep 8 2013: huh?


      I'm sure you mean well man, but I can't really understand your point. If you are saying that I should apply my own question to my question then I would say people like you are exactly the problem.
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        Sep 8 2013: if you are sure about it what is your question plz? ,
        i tell you something about philosophy for me it's my passion like chess if you believe that you must respect my favorite game plz respect my favorite life.
        unnecessary question :it's the question that the goal will give back nothing good to our future.
        necessary question :what can ask about anything but nothing will change it faith.
        the truth i am telling you by my-self ,we are just in learning ,our learning is deserved for a honorable us we'll be.wish you wise life full unnecessary questions from your beloved to keep your smiling lengthy:)
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          Sep 8 2013: Philosophy is also my passion. I am taking it as a major at my university and plan to do graduate work as well.

          I'm still not sure what your argument is. Can you give me the title of what you want me to read by Kant?
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    Sep 8 2013: I too have noticed that some of these ideas tend to be extrapolated in a way that logic cannot sustain to bizarre conclusions. Once they dismiss physical evidence simply as artifact, people often convince themselves that any speculation or fantasy is as likely or real as any other. From there I have seen people argue that people can imagine anything they choose into actual being and then to claim this conclusion is supported by modern science.

    If people act in certain ways based on conclusions they draw from a line of questioning or inquiry, can you call it "practically meaningless?"
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      Sep 8 2013: Fritzie,

      This is exactly my point. I have a problem when self-proclaimed mystics like Deepak Chopra claimsthat rocks have consciousness, or that we could in fact be rocks with consciousness. It's a ridiculous extrapolation from the philosophical mind games I'm referring to in my post. One minute they question physicality, and the next moment consciousness is the ground of being. Popularized mysticism of this sort has been a detriment to philosophy in my opinion and when Quantum mechanics is invoked, it is a detriment to science.

      To answer your question, I guess it couldn't be "practically meaningless" given that individuals could act upon their beliefs "practically", but this is merely a semantic error on my part. Maybe we could work together to come up with an accurate term for these erroneous sorts of conclusions together?
      What we can agree on is that it is problematic when people use these lines of reasoning to found their world-views.
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        Sep 8 2013: I understand your concern. Do you think that posing your question as "are there unnecessary questions?" may have diverted your discussion from your primary interest?

        It sounds now as if you are asking how to discuss particular kinds of philosophical ideas that tend to mislead or distract people from valuable learning.
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          Sep 8 2013: Yes I do think I could've presented the problem more carefully. I had posted this as a question on my personal blog and transferred it over here so I could have a good discussion. My blog audience and the TED audience are very different so next time i'll structure the introduction accordingly.
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        Sep 8 2013: You can go back up and change your explanatory narrative to make it more focused on your interest.

        People edit their words often for such a reason.
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          Sep 8 2013: I'll work on that a bit later as I get a feel for where the multiple conversations are going. For now, you and a few others are up to speed on the direction I meant for this post.

          Could you elaborate on some of your thoughts on the questioning of materialism?
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        Sep 8 2013: I will mostly need to leave this for others, but I think questioning whether anything is material is different from questioning whether everything is material.

        I think people should pursue for themselves whatever questioning helps them make sense of their lives. My concern is the way some special interests seize upon and sell to others scenarios that are not supported by research or reason and pretend that their position is the latest science (that scholars deny out of self-interest).

        That direction in popular culture- that sort of "capture"- prevents large numbers of non-specialists from keeping up with what modern science, for example, actually suggests. A division arises, then, between those who get the advantage of formal education in such areas and those who don't and may be completely misled.

        I have no issues at all with conclusions drawn and articulated as matters of faith but only those which pretend to consistency with the findings of contemporary science as practiced by scientists trained in the disciplines in which they do their research.
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          Sep 8 2013: 1)Agreed.

          2) I think your first sentence is extremely important. The spirit of questioning and the spirit of curiosity are essential, there's no denying this. I should also clarify that mind-bending and challenging discussions on substance and "Ultimate Reality" both expand the depths of critical thinking skills, spatial conceptualization skills, and broaden the horizon of possibility for philosophy students or general readers. The problem is when the ideas are taken far out of the classroom. Maybe some of this is a pedagogical error? Is it possible that some professors might not make it clear that some concepts are just for exercise?

          3) As for the self-interested deceivers, I agree that it is reprehensible.
          But we must admit that some of the individuals spouting the claims actually believe what they say. To me it seems a bit of basic philosophical thinking gone awry and that is the point of this blog.

          4) Agreed. I strongly believe an effort needs to be made, on all fronts but most urgently in the sciences and in philosophy, to disseminate information. The average joe should be armed with the critical thinking skills and basic science topics necessary to be prepared to assess fantastic claims. Don't get me wrong here, I'm saying people are ignorant or ranting in a condescending tone. This is more an education reform type idea. I surely knew nothing about quantum mechanics or epistemology a few years ago and would've been a victim like many others
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        Sep 8 2013: If an idea is not to be "taken far out of the classroom," I would have to question its value. Everything in the classroom should be relevant to life and thought outside the classroom.

        You are right that those who spread their understanding of things typically believe what they spread. Some ought to know better, though,

        Sometimes critical thinking is not enough. There are certain areas in which people will tend not to have confidence and will either defer to authority or see red flags of warning because they are aware of how many people pretend to expertise in those areas. You gave quantum mechanics as an example. There are also many false claims about neuroscience. There is a TED talk by a neuroscientist on this subject that has the word "neurobunk" in its title. Here: http://www.ted.com/talks/molly_crockett_beware_neuro_bunk.html
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          Sep 8 2013: 1) I agree. That's essentially why i'm arguing for disclaimers to be attached to philosophy "bunk" as Ms. Crockett would have it. I was being careful not to outright dismiss things like idealism and solipsism; it would be a shame for it not to be taught. I would have to argue that nearly everything considered in an educational context is relevant to thought, at least in the sense that a student could compare viewpoints and lines of reasoning to that which he/she considers rational.
          You also seemed to misunderstand what I meant by "taken out of the classroom." When some thing is intended to be taught as an exercise or as an example of irrational thinking, it is taken out of the classroom and applied to daily life in the sense that individuals "know better" than to take a position defending it.

          2) I didn't argue that critical thinking was enough, but it sure is better than no framework at all. Most of us in academia, at least in science and philosophy, have embraced taking reputable authorities' word for it because of the reality of specialization. But before we do, we at least verify that the authority we look to is adhering to the rules that we've agreed provide the most un-biased and accurate conclusions within the given subject.

          3) Although the problem of general knowledge is outside of what I can argue for, leave that to Ken Robinson and other education reformers, It seems that academic and scientific authority figures need to pay more close attention to the problem were speaking about.
          Now, i'm not arguing for "scientism" or "atheism" in general, but popularizers of philosophy and science such as Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan, Sam Harris, etc. who write books in a format understandable for academics and the people and take on folk-authority figures like Deepak Chopra do a service to both the people and academia. Would you agree?
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        Sep 8 2013: Those in science and the academy are extremely well aware of the problem of popular misconceptions, pseudoscience, and so forth that you describe.

        Some address the matter head on in, say, TED talks or talks for Edge or other venues. Others simply say no to the many requests they receive from journals and conferences that do not adhere to the normal standards of rigor or method of reputable journals and otherwise devote their talents and creative energy to pushing the boundaries of their fields. In my opinion., we need many of our most brilliant scientists to focus on doing research and teaching and mentoring their students.
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          Sep 9 2013: 1) yes, I know.
          2) I agree. But being a public intellectual requires just as much brilliance as being an efficient scientist. Those who have the talent of speaking, teaching, and public engagement are contributing to the cause in a way tantamount in value to that of a lab scientist. But we really shouldn't be debating this point. We both agree that regardless of where they do it, in the classroom, for academic journals, or publicly, there are those with legitimate authority-those that should be doing it. Again, though, it seems an unnecessary point to diverge upon.

          The most important part is that we agree on the value of sound and verifiable fact and it's place of value intellectually and practically.

          What I'm trying to illustrate is the sort of trickle down effect of the "unnecessary question" in the first place. Without taking the "bunk" seriously in the first place, there wouldn't be an army of New Age Mystics calling for the downfall of western science and the integration of mass-meditation to cure cancer.
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    Sep 7 2013: Shawn, are you looking for what kinds of questions one might classify as not fruitful in the sense of providing no practical leverage, or are you asking specifically whether questioning physicality is fruitful?
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      Sep 7 2013: I'm more so trying to classify the questioning of physicality into the category of philosophically (in the sense that it requires a philosophical mode of thought) and rhetorically fruitful but practically meaningless.

      I'm also looking to see if this is a defensible position.