That's a metaphor for suggesting that someone is wasting time debating topics of no practical value. Philosophers are sometimes accused of doing this. Candidly, they don't help their cause by actually doing research on dancing angels. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, you've really got to wonder what they were thinking. As the joke goes, tell a philosopher that his training is useless and he'll ask you to define useless.
Granted, maybe that's one of the reasons professional and academic philosophers don't typically get paid much. But there's little doubt that philosophy has helped some people to learn to think more critically (e.g., using the Socratic method). And thinking critically is certainly a skill that is not only practical but often highly valued.
If you're going to study philosophy for many years, it would be beneficial to use your knowledge and abilities productively. Sadly, warmongers in the military industrial complex seem to be more valued when it comes to putting ideas into people's heads than philosophers. There shouldn't be much debate to validate that philosophers are more valuable to society than those who make bombs. However, interestingly enough, a poor philosophy can be just as destructive as a bomb. After all, why do bombs get made? Understanding why is the difference that philosophy can make. It isn't rocket science to prove that our survival depends more on a proper philosophy than a bomb.
Mark Twain once wrote that "the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." Is it an exaggeration to say that philosophy is dying? What progress has been made in philosophy? Are people turned off by philosophy because they think it adds nothing to their lives? How has philosophy contributed to the sum of human progress? Can you learn to think critically without philosophy? What is the value of philosophy? Are questions like what is love or what is the meaning of life of limited value? What has philosophy done for you?
"I was thinking before you came, if philosophy hadn't existed - apart from Aristotle - what would we not know? The answer is that it wouldn't have made the slightest difference..."
Now 78, Wolpert has not exactly mellowed when it comes to his hostility to philosophers. He is personally charming, but when we got to philosophy, the phrases "totally unintelligible", "no use whatsoever" and "gobbledegook" were bandied around with a vigour that was somewhere between irritation and zest...
"Nothing in Popper or in any other philosophy of science has anything relevant to say about science. I don't know of any scientist who takes the slightest interest in the philosophy of science..."
So, for instance, when I challenged his view that philosophy of science is irrelevant by saying that it surely depended on what it was supposed to be relevant to, he retorted, "It's not relevant to anything."
But then came a small concession: "I'm not talking about political philosophy, I'm talking about the nature of the world." But as if he had already granted too much, he added, "It's clever, but totally irrelevant. Most of it seems to me just nonsense, it's very hard to know what they're talking about."
How then does Wolpert explain the fact that so many great minds over history have been seduced by a subject which he claims is totally irrelevant?
"That's a very good question, and I think it's a bit like religion. I've just been to a meeting on science and religion and I can't understand what most people are talking about. They're not unclever, they're clever people but it just seems gobbledogook, babble."
Wolpert is clearly not lacking in self-belief, but what makes him so confident it's a failing of philosophy rather than himself that he finds it gobbledegook?
"Because it wouldn't matter one hoot - science has done very well without any philosophy whatsoever. Take biology over the last 100 years - philosophy has had zero impact."
Aren't there people who think it might help at least with theoretical physics?
"I don't think that it's philosophy that will solve it in any way whatsoever, because it's all about language and words, not science, and physics is about science..."
"I think they're very clever but have nothing useful to say whatsoever."
Nothing useful for the practice of science by scientists, perhaps.
"No, nothing useful for the practice of anything," he insists. "Perhaps morals politics and things like that, that may well be. John Stuart Mill and justice and so on, that's important stuff, but about the nature of the world, absolutely nothing to say whatsoever."
What about the nature of knowledge itself?
"Absolutely nothing useful to say at all."
So the questions that are asked don't need to be asked? They're just interesting puzzles for clever people?
"That's exactly what they are. They're something for philosophers to dabble in..."
"I think philosophers are probably quite jealous of science and this is why they come up with all this nonsense to try to show it's not as reliable as people like to think it is. Look at how successful science is - philosophy is not successful - it's achieved nothing."