Friday, November 26, 2010

Reason to Philosophize

Let me first begin by making the case against philosophy quite clear. I don’t immerse myself in philosophical circles; I don’t hang around fellow philosophers or make a whole lot of social relations with philosophers. So I’m well aware of the way that we’re perceived among non-philosophers. They see our crazy theories (philosophers are probably proportionally more likely to believe that the world doesn’t exist), they listen to our tedious nit picking (the distinction between the existence of free will and the believing perception of free will is practically trivial) and they endure our rambling arguments (the last time I had a philosophical discussion that stayed on topic was on the 12th of Never).

And in the end, what have they endured for? Not an answer, certainly. It’s the rare philosopher who feels like he can come up with an answer, and it’s a rarer philosopher still who gets many people to believe his answer. The basic philosophy courses I took followed this standard model: we’d read the works of the greatest philosophers of all Western History, then we’d spend a week explaining in thorough detail why they were wrong. It’s almost like those Tibetan sand drawings: the monks spend months meticulously creating them for the sole purpose of brushing them away in the space of a few seconds.

So for most people, philosophy appears to be an abstract process for discussing bullshit, with no tangible end in sight the majority of the time. Even assuming that some people can come up with really useful philosophical ideas, like advocating empiricism and thus leading to the development of science, most of us are just wankers, right?

To be perfectly honest, it has taken me a really long time to think of why I instinctively oppose the notion that it’s just a waste of time. My first post to this blog developed the defense of philosophy based on it being personally pleasurable. That deflects the accusation of pointlessness for the same reason that an argument that basketball is pointless because the ball just keeps going back and forth over the same few yards of court and never gets anywhere falls flat with most people. It’s an enjoyable endeavor, I argued. This is my hobby, and to regard it as pointless is to miss its inherent point: it’s delightful.

In the end, I think that argument is the most bullet proof, and probably the most important. I wouldn’t take the time to develop a further argument, after all, if I didn’t find philosophy inherently enjoyable. And I don’t think my life would be wasted if I didn’t philosophize, nor do I believe that time I spend not philosophizing is time wasted. I am more than happy to enjoy myself in other ways, and explore other hobbies, and turn off my philosophical mind sometimes to enjoy other aspects of life.

I’ve been growing to feel, however, that there’s a greater reason to do philosophy. A reason for everyone to do it; a reason that a person is worse off for not doing it. People should care about philosophy because no matter how hard anyone tries, they’ll do it anyway.

Now, of course, most people don’t read philosophers or take philosophy classes, and I’m not necessarily advocating that. I personally have enjoyed that, but it's really more of the cherry on the top of the philosophy I already do. What I think people should be more aware of is the extent that they rationalize the relationship between their emotions and their world and how much those rationalizations end up mattering to them. Those rationalizations, I feel, are the core of philosophy.

At this point it’s probably worthwhile to establish why I feel philosophy is something different than being able to quote Socrates or engaging in a love/hate relationship with Kant. Philosophy is a discipline that has changed a lot over the years. Under the folds of philosophy used to reside what we now call music, mathematics and science. I’d argue that even religion used to belong in the school of philosophy, but many people object that religion is not a rational enough discipline to sit aside philosophy. To those people, I’d suggest taking a look at theology, which will disabuse them of the notion that religion can't be approached on an intensely mental level.

The reason why I use the past tense when I refer to these various strains of human thought as being part of philosophy is because they clearly are not anymore. Science is science, and they don’t teach it in the same classes as philosophy. Why is that? I argue that it is because the philosophical work is done and those fields have become practices rather than arts, as I’d say philosophy is. That isn’t to say that science and math don’t have a lot of research left; I’d say that they’re far from finished, if it would ever be possible to finish studying the universe through the lens of science and math.  But the way we do science has settled down. In order to do science, we accept that we can learn things about the world by observation of events and the inference of causal relationships.  Having been given that tool, which is the methodology of empiricism, we can go forward and apply it to our world and learn.

To the extent that philosophy has helped science, people are grateful. Most people I know would acknowledge that science was born out of great philosophers (even if some of them were rubbish scientists), and the philosophy certainly gave the groundwork that made science possible as an endeavor. But those people tend to think that having made those gains, philosophy is no longer useful except as a pseudo study of history. But it’s important to understand that while science as a methodology may have gotten everything it needs from philosophy, we as scientists certainly have not.

Nothing is inherently meaningful. Science without scientists would be as useless as a train without passengers: there would be no one to reap the benefits. And philosophy is like the ticket to use science: it gives us a way to relate our lives to something abstract. Philosophy is the method we use to create our meaning in science, by building that bridge between what we feel and what we understand. Philosophy gives us a language to relate the rational to the emotional; to relate our moral feelings into intellectual moral principles. Philosophy lets us turn the instincts we believe into principles we can know, and that process is crucial to making any rational endeavor (not just science) a meaningful one to humanity.

Like I said above, you don’t need to read about Empiricists in order to find philosophy meaningful; that’s not what I’m saying. Empiricism comes easy to us, since we’re wired to feel like it makes sense. We assume it all the time, from when we feel like letting go of a cup will make it shatter because we’ve noticed that in the past to when we avoid saying a boss is doing particularly inept work today, because we can reasonably predict that saying that will lead to a less pleasant life afterward. The point I’m trying to make is that we all do philosophy; we all make those rationalizations that lead us from our instincts and feelings to our rational processes. But most of us make those rationalizations without care and without thought; jumping through the process with little understanding of what it actually means to us and to others. Caring about philosophy slows us down. It stops us and asks us to understand the rationalizations we make. Slowing down is important, because those rationalizations that we build to interface with things we already feel can affect the way we interact with something new.

So my plea is not that you start to do philosophy; I'm sure that you already do. What I want is for you to understand a bit more about how you do philosophy. And from my experience with engaging non-philosophers in philosophy, you might find that reason number one could kick in after a while, too: it really is delightful.

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