Software Needs Philosophers

nikie n.estner at
Mon May 22 01:38:34 CEST 2006

Xah Lee wrote:

> Software Needs Philosophers
> by Steve Yegge, 2006-04-15.
> Software needs philosophers.
> This thought has been nagging at me for a year now, and recently it's
> been growing like a tumor. One that plenty of folks on the 'net would
> love to see kill me.

No, we all wish you a long and quiet life! Although some of us are a
little annoyed that you keep cross-posting articles wildly to
completely unrelated newsgroups...

> People don't put much stock in philosophers these days. The popular
> impression of philosophy is that it's just rhetoric, just frivolous
> debating about stuff that can never properly be answered. "Spare me
> the philosophy; let's stick to the facts!"
> The funny thing is, it's philosophers who gave us the ability to think
> rationally, to stick to the facts. If it weren't for the work of
> countless philosophers, facts would still be getting people tortured
> and killed for discovering and sharing them.
> Does it ever strike you as just a teeny bit odd that after a brief
> period where philosophy flourished, from maybe 400 B.C.E. to ~100 C.E.,
> we went through a follow-on period of well over one thousand five
> hundred years during which the Roman Catholic Church enslaved
> everyone's minds and killed anyone who dared think differently?

I wonder where you get your historical "facts" form? (Monty Python
movies?) Let's just add a few fun facts: Yes, philosophy did flourish
in ancient greece, but liberty certainly didn't. Yes, Athens was (at
least most of the time) a democracy - which by the way, most
philosophers thought was a very bad thing. But still, about 90% of the
population of Athens were slaves at that time. Not just "mentally
enslaved", no, real, physical slaves.
Also, it was dangerous to have oppinions that authorities didn't like
(Socrates for example was sentenced to death because of impiety,
Anaxagoras and Aristoteles had to flee because of similar charges,
Hipposus, who _proved_ a flaw in Pythagoras' number theory was
drowned). And, sad to say, if philosophers would have been in charge,
things would probably have been even worse (Ever read Plato's "The

Also, has the roman catholic church really "killed anyone who dared
think differently"? The Spanish Inquisition for example killed about
1000-2000 people in two centuries. That's bad enough, no question, but
"anyone who dared think differently"? Hardly.

> What's weirder is that we tend to pretend it didn't really happen. We
> like to just skip right over the dominance of religion over our minds
> for a hundred generations, and think of religion today as a kindly old
> grandpa who's just looking out for us kids. No harm, no foul. Let
> bygones be bygones. Sure, there were massacres and crusades and
> genocides and torture chambers with teeth grinding and eyes bleeding
> and intestines torn out in the name of God. But we were all just kids
> then, right? Nobody does that kind of thing today, at least not in
> civilized countries.

Hmmm. There were massacres in the name of liberty to, e.g. in the
French Revolution. Does that make liberty (and those who value it)
equally evil? (The same is of course true for money, love, or probably
anything else people like)

> We try not to think about the uncivilized ones.

We do! Let's think about some of them: The Khmers rouges come to my
mind, also China, and a few years back the Soviet Union. Notice
something? Right, no religion. In fact, they were more or less
following the works of the philosopher Karl Marx.

> It was philosophers that got us out of that Dark Ages mess, and no
> small number of them lost their lives in doing so.

In the "Dark Ages" pretty much the only chance to get a decent
education was to become a monk or at least be taught by monks. So, it
isn't surprising that almost all of the philosophers at the time (like
William of Occam or Roger Bacon) were monks. Therefore, philosophy was
never clearly separated from theology during that time.

The end of the middle ages is probably marked by the renaissance and
the reformation, the latter of course started by a priest.

What have we learned? Yes, Religion was an important power in the
development of europe over the last 3000 years (yes, I'm including the
Antiquity in this, it didn't just take a break to watch the philosophy
channel). So were money, and military power, technology, social
factors, and of course philosophy. Yes, it did have bad consequences,
and it did have good ones. The same is true for all the other powers as

(BTW: Have you ever considered the possibility that philosophers might
not be interested in tab-versus-spaces-debates in the first place?
Maybe they have more interesting matters to discuss. Just like the rest
of us.)

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