Who knows what philosophy is being done or will be done in other galaxies? Let’s stick to philosophy done by humans. Its future depends on the future of the human species and of human civilisation. Obviously, if our species becomes extinct through nuclear war, there will be no more human philosophy. Even if we survive in a harsh, degraded environment where we must spend our energy in violent competition for the scarce resources we need just to live, we won’t have much time for philosophy. Equally, we won’t have much time for mathematics, physics, biology, psychology, linguistics, history, and any other form of intellectual inquiry; likewise if humans become enslaved by robots. Scenarios like those don’t tell us much specifically about the future of philosophy.
Instead, let’s grant the optimistic premise that human civilisation does not fall apart. Then a system of education will still be required, to prepare the young to play their role in that civilisation. In particular, at least some of them will have to learn the mathematics and physics they will need to understand, control, and improve whatever forms of advanced technology are in use. The mathematics will rely on logic to prove its results. We may assume that our descendants will be at least as intelligent as we are, so some of them will critically reflect on the first principles of logic on which their mathematics relies. Why those principles rather than various alternatives? In asking such questions, they will be thinking philosophically. Similarly, they will wonder what their theories of physics imply about the overall nature of the universe in which they live. In doing so, they will be doing metaphysics. They will also ask themselves how far they can rely on those theories and the supposed evidence for them. In doing so, they will be doing epistemology and the philosophy of science too.
In any human society, conflicts of interest arise. Arguments are often needed to achieve a non-violent resolution. Those arguments will involve underlying assumptions about how individuals and groups ought to behave towards each other. In a future society accustomed to critical reflection on basic principles, those dissatisfied with the outcome of the dispute will sometimes challenge those assumptions, which is to embark on moral philosophy. Humans who are anything at all like us will also sometimes be dissatisfied with the distribution of power in their society, and question the principles by which it is distributed, which is to embark on political philosophy. Other forms of philosophy will arise similarly.
There is no chance that philosophy will simply complete its mission and stop. As already observed, provocations to reflect philosophically will always occur. Even in the apparently cut-and-dried case of mathematics, the famous “incompleteness theorem” proved by Kurt Gödel implies that we can never list a set of correct mathematical principles from which solutions to all mathematical problems can in principle be derived. His result generalises to logic itself. In that sense, if our theories are correct, they must leave some problems of logic unsolved, even in principle. Wittgenstein was wrong when he claimed that there are no surprises in logic; there will always be surprises in logic. We can expect that there will always be surprises in less formal areas of philosophy too.
A human society without philosophy is one whose members don’t fully exercise the human capacity for critical reflection on underlying principles, conducted systematically in a form which enables each generation to learn from its predecessors. Although such a society is possible, we must hope that we are not heading that way.
If there are philosophers in a society, of course it does not follow that there are also universities with departments labelled “Philosophy”. How research and teaching are organised is a separate institutional matter. But in no serious area of inquiry can much progress be expected unless there is at least an informal community of people who devote themselves more or less full-time to questions in that area.
How can philosophy in the future be done better than philosophy today? Some hopes are not specific to philosophy. For instance, many, perhaps most, people are born in circumstances which offer them no realistic opportunity to study philosophy seriously. Let’s hope that such opportunities become far more widely available. But that hope applies to many other subjects too. Let’s focus on improvements specific to philosophy.
As for how philosophy is done, my central hope is that it will become more scientific. When I speak of science here, I am not restricting it to natural sciences such as physics, chemistry, and biology, which employ experiments in laboratories and observations by telescopes and microscopes. Mathematics is a science, but not a natural science, although all the natural sciences rely on it. Mathematics is just as good a model as the natural sciences for philosophy. After all, mathematics is very close to logic, and logic is crucial to philosophy. I view philosophy as a science, although neither a natural science nor a fully mature one.
Of course, we can’t do philosophy by mathematics alone, because most philosophical questions aren’t purely mathematical questions. Words like “knowledge” and “justice” have no translation into purely mathematical terms. Still, mathematics can help more than you might think.
For a comparison, think of biology. Its questions aren’t purely mathematical questions. Nevertheless, many biological phenomena are understood through the use of simplified mathematical models. For example, why is reproduction by two sexes rather than three, or eight, or none? To understand why, a good approach is to build mathematical models of hypothetical creatures which reproduce in other ways, to see what (if anything) goes wrong, why they might not survive. One can rigorously calculate what happens in the model, or use a computer to simulate many such scenarios, to explore the consequences of the initial hypothesis. Mathematical models can also be used to understand phenomena that do occur, such as how rises and falls in a predator population (like foxes) are related to rises and falls in a prey population (like rabbits). The models are much simpler and less messy than real-life biological phenomena: they may involve only two species in an unchanging environment, and so on. Even so, they help biologists understand otherwise puzzling patterns in the observed data.
Philosophers are starting to build such models too. For instance, if you know something, do you know that you know it? If you don’t know something, do you know that you don’t know it? Such questions quickly become very confusing. The best way to keep track of what is going on is to build simple mathematical models of situations where those questions have different answers. The Finnish philosopher Jaakko Hintikka did that, and many variations have since been played on that theme. For example, computer scientists and theoretical economists have used such models to study situations where everyone knows something but not everyone knows that everyone knows it, and so on.
I hope that philosophy will come to use model-building methods much more widely and systematically. It won’t solve all philosophical problems, but it will enable progress to be made. We can discover mathematically how things work in a given model. Of course, someone can always challenge the model, accuse it of being misleading. But the model-building spirit is that you can’t rule out a model just by being negative. It was never meant to correspond exactly to real life. Instead, if you don’t like a model, the challenge is on you to build a better model, one which explains what the previous one explained and more besides. Instead of just locking horns, the critic is forced to do something constructive. Philosophy is already making some progress of that kind. There is much more to be made.