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Philosophy in Unexpected Places

April 26, 2017

Those unfamiliar with the discipline often dismiss philosophy as an "impractical" subject, bearing little relevance to issues of everyday life. But medical student Divya Palanisamy has found her background in philosophy to be anything but impractical. From science to healthcare to education, she has found wide application for the skills she developed as a philosophy student at the University of Minnesota.

Palanisamy graduated in 2015 with degrees in philosophy and neuroscience. Though some might see this as an odd combination, Palanisamy proves that it is an inspired one. "Although the two are seemingly contradictory majors, they helped me get at understanding human thought in a way that allowed me to draw my own conclusions," she explains.

Today, Palanisamy is a first-year medical student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. From euthanasia to personhood to reproductive rights, ethical issues crop up everywhere in the medical profession. Palanisamy says that her background in philosophy has given her a strong basis for grappling with such issues. "Ethics is all-pervasive in medicine," she says, "and I already feel more comfortable than most of my peers in discussing the ethics of any given case." In healthcare, where others' lives are quite literally at stake, such ethical concerns are far from mere academic squabbles. Indeed, Palanisamy believes that her philosophical skills will help her become a more successful physician.

Palanisamy was interested in the relevance of philosophy to scientific research and human well-being long before med school. Her senior thesis, overseen by Professor Alan Love of the philosophy department, took a philosophical lens to the scientific study of same-sex sexual behavior in animals. Though the results of such research are frequently extended to the case of humans, Palanisamy argues that their contribution to understanding human beings is more limited than many realize. She points out that in humans, self-identification is what is crucial to being a homosexual, not engaging in sexual behavior with a member of the same sex. Since animals lack such a capacity for self-identification, they are not, strictly speaking, capable of homosexuality. "Even though we do see same-sex sexual behaviors in animals, it's not the same as saying that those animals are homosexual," she explains, "because ultimately what it means for a human to be homosexual is more or less separate from such behavior." Her philosophy background helped her recognize that scientific knowledge about same-sex sexual behavior in animals does not give us any direct insight into homosexuality, contrary to what the unreflective extrapolation of some might suggest.

Palanisamy's thesis not only clarifies a distinction between homosexuality and same-sex sexual behavior, but it also highlights and exemplifies a broader philosophical implication for scientific research. Though Palanisamy acknowledges that animal models are often helpful—even indispensable—in studying human beings, she draws our attention to the danger of extending the conclusions derived from such models beyond what is warranted. "You run into issues when you try to extrapolate those conclusions to apply to social or political debates," explains Palanisamy. "We tend to think of facts as the indisputable truth, but even solid data from a well-conducted research study can be contentious if misapplied." Misapplications like this one clearly demonstrate philosophy’s relevance to scientific research. Though science may provide the results, it takes philosophy to recognize the scope and limits of their application. "Applying philosophy to science trained me to think critically both about how we are using models to represent complex issues as well as the dangers of taking those models too far," Palanisamy concludes.

Though Palanisamy has found her background in philosophy to be immensely helpful in grappling with medical ethics and deflating the epistemological conceit of researchers, it is in education that her philosophical skills have been most useful thus far. Between graduating from the University of Minnesota and enrolling at Case Western, Palanisamy spent a year working for an AmeriCorps organization called City Year in Manchester, New Hampshire. "It’s hard to describe what I did at City Year," she says. On paper, she was assigned to be a tutor and mentor to low-income fourth-graders, though the difficulties of her role went far beyond what one might ordinarily expect for a tutor. "Our roles at City Year went beyond the academic," she explains, "More often than not, what our kids needed was to be told and shown that they were loved, that there was a safe place in the world for them, and that where they could go with their lives did not have to depend on the circumstances they came from." Palanisamy's students had diverse needs, and the ways in which she addressed these needs had to be equally so. "In order to find academic solutions that worked within the context of my students' home lives, I had to be creative."

It's philosophy to which Palanisamy attributes the kind of creativity she found essential at City Year. "The most valuable skill I gained from majoring in philosophy was the ability to approach problems from as many angles as possible," she says, "This same skill helped me be extraordinarily creative in finding solutions for my students, and made me a more effective educator as a result." That said, Palanisamy points out that it was often difficult to anticipate the long-term effects of these solutions. "I've heard teaching likened to throwing seeds over a wall—you're not sure which seeds will take and sprout, but you keep going because you have faith." Here, too, Palanisamy cites the importance of philosophy: "Being a philosophy major validated that faith. Having seen remarkably sound arguments for a variety of conclusions that—at first—seemed absolutely wild and made no sense, I was convinced that blind faith in your students and your own abilities could be rationally justified." 

Though she found her experience at City Year to be a challenging one, Palanisamy says that her philosophical training allowed her to be comfortable with ambiguity, giving her the strength and the readiness to persist and be all that she needed to be for her students. "Philosophy," she concludes, "helps you understand and appreciate the diversity of human experience without prejudice, and that's exactly what my students needed from me." As with medical ethics and her senior thesis, Palanisamy's time at City Year was, as she puts it, "another example of philosophy helping me find value in unexpected approaches and in unexpected places."

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.