The Tl;DR Key points
WHY PHIL DIED, AND WHY YOU SHOULD CARE ABOUT IT
Today I learned that Phil Valentine died from COVID-related pneumonia. This is genuinely sad, as anyone’s untimely death is.
Phil was a well-known conservative radio host in Tennessee, known especially for his controversial views about vaccines. It is unfair to say he was an anti-vaxxer; he specifically said some people “probably need to get the vaccine”, after all.
But he did contribute to vaccine hesitancy and, as a result, possibly the deaths and illness of some of his listeners. He did this in at least a few ways:
And I find this interesting because, if he had studied philosophy—or at least relevant parts of it—then, in a very real sense, he and some of his listeners might still be alive today. So while I don’t mean to unduly bag on Phil, I do want to extract lessons from his story that may hold value for others.
This pertains to a broader issue that I’m interested in: the value of philosophy. Often people question the value of philosophy—and so they should, along with the value of everything else in life.
But sometimes people criticize philosophy as being valueless. You might think this criticism has some merit: after all, some philosophers investigate whether holes exist objectively or are just the absence of things that exist objectively. It’s hard to see what real-world value or applications might emerge from that investigation.
But on the other hand, not all philosophy is the same, and a lot of it makes us better thinkers. In some cases, it might even save lives, as strong as that claim may sound. The case of Phil Valentine illustrates this.
To argue this, I’ll first discuss how Phil actually reasoned about his risks and how this led to his death, and then I’ll discuss how philosophy might’ve saved his life.
PHIL VALENTINE AND HOW NOT TO REASON ABOUT RISK
So Phil didn’t get vaccinated, and this was a conscious choice of his. Why did he refuse vaccination? His reasoning seems to be encapsulated in this blogpost:
Doing some argument analysis of the sort I’ve taught elsewhere, we can probably put his argument in standard form as follows:
This, then, is the reasoning that explains Phil’s vaccine refusal and, in a sense, probably his untimely death. I’ll discuss its infirmities by discussing the ways in which philosophy might’ve corrected them.
PHILOSOPHY AND HOW TO REASON ABOUT RISK
How might have Phil's life been saved if he had studied philosophy? There are several ways, each of which correspond to ways in which philosophy might generally hold value for people.
Philosophy in General: Questioning Premises
Recall that an important premise in Phil’s reasoning was that his chances of dying from COVID were low—“[p]robably way less than one percent”, he says.
What reason did he have for believing this? Unfortunately, he gives none in his blog post, nor anywhere else that I am aware of. Admittedly, he might have had reasons he just didn’t express. But in any case, the fact he did not even think the premise was worthy of further defense suggests he might not have questioned it as much as he should have.
Yet if he was a philosopher, he probably would have done things differently and questioned himself more. After all, it’s pretty common knowledge that philosophers question things, at least according to this highly-peer reviewed meme that I found on the internet:
So philosophy cultivates a mindset that questions premises, especially ones that are often taken for granted. If Phil had this mindset, perhaps he would’ve challenged his risk assessments and still been here today.
But if he studied philosophy, how would he have changed his risk assessments? Well, it depends on which parts of philosophy he studied.
Formal Epistemology: The Principle of Direct Inference
If Phil studied formal epistemology—one of my specialties—then he probably would not have thought he had a negligible chance of dying from COVID if he got it. Here, formal epistemology is the philosophical study of epistemological questions (such as what rational belief is) using formal tools (such as probability theory). In general, a lot of formal epistemology focuses on how to correctly estimate probabilities, something that can be useful in various areas ranging from science to court proceedings to even medical diagnosis (and I could discuss at length how all this is so, if you like).
A popular principle in formal epistemology is the so-called principle of direct inference. There are different formulations of it, but a popular version instructs us to use population statistics to assign probabilities, especially statistics for the most specific relevant reference class (à la the so-called principle of the narrowest reference class).
In Phil’s case, since he was in his 60s, the principle would tell him to assign at least a 1% probability to dying from COVID if he got it, since the statistics (such as those here and here) suggest that as a lower bound, with close to 3% as an upper bound. Had he done that, he might not have claimed that his chances of dying from COVID were “[p]robably way less than one percent”. This itself might have saved Phil’s life by making him more cautious about COVID and refusing vaccines.
But philosophy might’ve helped in other ways.
Rational Decision Theory: Maximizing Expected Utility
Of course, probabilities by themselves don’t give rise to actions. Instead, we typically act on the basis of our desires in light of those probabilities. In philosophy, normative theories of rational choice tell us how to do that, and my PhD advisor Ray Briggs actually wrote an insightful encyclopedia article on such theories here. The insights from these theories can and do help many people to make rational decisions in areas ranging from economics to public policy to medicine.
Anyway, one such theory instructs us to maximize expected utility, where expected utility is, on one loose characterization, a measure of how worthwhile an action is given our probability assignments and desires. A key insight from expected utility theory is that whether we should take an action depends on the combination of both how probable the potential outcomes are and how good or bad those outcomes are.
In Phil’s case, even if death was unlikely, it presumably is so bad and undesirable for him that expected utility theory would tell him to get vaccinated. So perhaps that's another area of philosophy that would have changed his thinking and saved his life.
A COUPLE CAVEATS
So I think that if Phil studied philosophy, he wouldn't have died.
But I need a couple of caveats here.
The first is about causality and probability. Of course, it's hard to tell how things would have been if they had been different. Anyone studying counter-factual conditionals knows that. In this case, though, while I can't be certain he wouldn't had died had he studied philosophy, what I mean is this: he very probably wouldn't have died had he studied philosophy. And I think this given my experience teaching philosophy and seeing students improve their thinking over time, as they themselves sometimes would agree.
A second point is that I mean he wouldn't have died if he studied it well. Anyone can go into a philosophy course one end and pass out the other with nothing but a couple of fails. But given Phil's ability as a writer and a radio show host, I'm sure he could have eventually excelled in a philosophy class if he had put his mind to it.
And that's how he could've developed the thinking tools that would've saved his life, or so I believe.
BUT ISN'T THIS ALL TRIVIAL?
Of course, you might think these philosophical ideas are all trivial. They might seem so common sensical that it’s a joke to think philosophy uniquely adds something of value here.
There’s some merit to this criticism. After all, lots of smart people think well about risk without studying philosophy, and this kind of thinking can also be found in statistics and economics courses too.
But the criticism is of limited value. It does not mean philosophy offers nothing valuable; it just means that some people can acquire that value in other ways. And this is consistent with an observation in my teaching: philosophy develops valuable thinking skills in many who might not have so developed those skills in other ways had they not studied philosophy. Also, it should go without saying that philosophy also teaches other topics, or combinations of topics, that likewise can be valuable.
In any case, though, the fact of the matter is that these thinking styles are not common sensical, at least to many. Phil himself is an example of this. In his argument for vaccine refusal, he claims, “I’m not an anti-vaxxer. I’m just using common sense.” Perhaps he is right and actually did use as much sense as common sense offers.
And unfortunately, these thinking styles are not even that common among intelligent people. As a cognitive psychologist and a teacher at numerous universities, my job has often been to understand how other people think and, in some cases, to evaluate their thinking along these specific dimensions—especially when marking essays or running cognitive science experiments.
And the fact of the matter is that even at various esteemed universities, there are people who are exceptionally gifted in some area but who still falter on some of the basic thinking capabilities cultivated by philosophy. I frequently see capable people fail to question important assumptions, especially in the essays I mark. I frequently see capable people under or over-estimate risks without even looking at statistics, let alone the most relevant and specific ones. And I frequently see capable people explain actions with reference to just probabilities rather than expected utility, contra decision theory. For example, if someone apologizes for something, someone else might assume the apologizer thinks they have probably caused offence rather than explaining the apology as a precautionary measure just in case, even if they thought they were unlikely to have caused offence. Of course, this is not intended as a harsh criticism of those intelligent people. We all have our limitations, myself included; my aim is merely to point out some of the areas where those limitations may be present, even if one excels in other areas.
The basic reason is that people can be good in one area but not in another. For example, someone might excel in an anthropology department or a medical school because they can rote learn facts and procedures. But they may nevertheless lack the tendencies to reflect on important assumptions, to properly utilize statistics instead of gut hunches, and to think about rational decisions in specific ways. Philosophy can help there, and that might explain why philosophy majors top the GRE's analytical writing measures and other tests of thinking abilities.
Anyway, philosophy: it saves lives, people.