Some quick thoughts to get your discussion started...
Thinking is not an option; we all do it. But because it’s hard to work everything out from first principles, we are more likely to accept the views of other uncritically, unless they happen to clash with our own particular interests. But the problem with uncritical acceptance is that it encourages drift – bobbing along on the surface of life, shifting one way or another in response to current of fashion – which is fine, except that we may not end up in the destination of our choice. The alternative is to take responsibility for our own thoughts, making a conscious effort to be honest with ourselves. It may not lead to an easier life (drifting is always going to appear the option of choice for minimum effort), but engenders real character and decisive living. So one might want to philosophise in order:
- to sort out one’s own views in a systematic way
- to sharpen one’s rational abilities, which gives a competitive edge
- to become a better person, in the sense of living according to rational values
- to become more open to the ideas of others, and to give them a fair hearing
To have opinions, and not be afraid to change them; to reason and allow one’s reasoning to be challenged; to have values and principles and know how to present an argument for them. These are just some of the reasons why one might want to dip one’s intellectual toes into philosophical water.
Of what are you certain?
Certainties come in many forms; some people rely on evidence, and some on their ability to reason, yet people may feel certain of their religious or political beliefs, although they may not feel able to defend them rationally or provide evidence. One may feel certain of an emotion – that one is in love, for example – or of one’s preferences – that one really dislikes cabbage. On the basis of past experience is may seem certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that by the rules of logic 2 + 4 = 4.
But our cherished certainties may come under attack from people with differing views, and we find ourselves defending our own position with increasing anxiety. It is very threatening to be challenged about long-held views and find them wanting, for they may have become something of an intellectual comfort blanket.
Philosophy is always asking question, challenging established views, and asking for valid reasons for things we believe – that it what makes it both fascinating and, at times, threatening. To be committed to a philosophical approach to life is to accept that one can and should retain (and, indeed, develop) convictions and principles (including the principle that one’s convictions and principles should be open to be challenged) but that one will have to accept that, in the world as it is, there are relative few certainties to be had.
Will nothing work better?
We are often befuddled by words – particularly those that masquerade as names when they are really descriptions. There was an old joke, based on an advertising slogan for a tablet of choice for relieving headaches: ‘Nothing works faster than A…… ; so, next time you have a headache, take nothing.’
‘Nothing’, of course, describes an absence – in the hierarchy of fast-working tablets, there is no tablet higher than the one being advertised (if the claim is correct). But it is too easy to think of terms like ‘nothing’, ‘perfect’, ‘absolute’, ‘ultimate’, ‘absolutely real’ as though they refer to particular things, instead of seeing them as expressing a relationship, or indicating that one is looking towards the theoretical end point of a hierarchy, whatever that may be.
What then of terms like ‘justice’, or ‘freedom’ or ‘love’ or ‘God’? Do they refer to entities, or are they shorthand ways of speaking about values? One can argue that there is no justice over and above just acts, no love other than that expressed by the one who loves. General terms are simply there to help us speak of those ideals that go beyond, but are instantiated in, particular actions. They are desperately important, because without them we struggle to express values and choices. But mistaken for the name of some independent reality, and people can be fooled into imposing slavery in the name of ‘freedom’, cruelty in the name of ‘love’, or ‘nothing’ in place of that headache tablet.
What’s the point of knowledge?
The disinterested quest for knowledge remains the ideal for Higher Education, but more often than not, when it comes to government funding or commercial sponsorship, the key criterion – particularly in the sciences – is whether research is going to yield economic benefit. Applied research is valuable, just as training for a job is valuable. But what of long-term benefits of deep thought? What of the sort of thinking that might, one day, allow us to see things differently? What of the obscure research that does not immediately link with practical needs? Are these an indulgence that recessionary times cannot afford?
Without doubt, practical applications help give focus to thinking. Ethics has flourished during the last 30 or 40 years because of the need to address issues for the professions, particularly in nursing and medicine. We need to know the facts about global warming, or about how cancer cells metastasise – and if research yields such facts, it is to be applauded. But what of those subjects – philosophy included all too often – which do not appear to yield such human benefits? What is the point of them?
This is not a rhetorical but a genuine question. Given limited resources, are we not obliged to go for what is likely to yield results? Can we afford the luxury of disinterested research?
Perhaps the answer lies in the danger of accepting a norm for what humankind needs, and going for that to the exclusion of all else. Is economic advance really the goal of humankind? And who decides? Politicians? A democratic vote? As soon as we ask what the point of anything is, we start to unpack our personal values, and that, in itself, yields the kind on knowledge well worth having.
Science and objectivity
Come back Newton, all is forgiven! At one time, it might have been assumed that, by the methodical gathering of data and the careful formulation of hypotheses, our knowledge of the world would be both progressive and certain – indeed, by the end of the 19th century, thinkers such as Ernst Haeckel were cheerfully proclaiming that there was little more for science to discover about the universe.
How different now. Quantum mechanics predicts what will happen (with remarkable success) but cannot actually describe what happens. We are aware that our observation influences what we observe; hence the classic image of the electron being seen as either a particle or a wave. So science deals with the world as we perceive it, and the human interaction with the world is a framework within which science has to operate. We cannot claim absolute objectivity.
Recognising this in no way devalues what science can achieve, but it does suggest that those who are dismissive of any subjective evaluation or personal preference on the basis that the only definitive answer is given by science, should pause and reflect. Science is essentially pragmatic, accepting and working with the best explanation available, but always open (as is philosophy) to challenge and change.
In this life, whether in matters of personal meaning or our attempt to understand the way the world works, there needs to be a due amount of humility. The world is a far stranger place than once we thought.
The advantage of being awake
Neither science nor philosophy appears to have given an adequate reason for consciousness having emerged from matter in the first place. Indeed, the mind and sensations of which we are conscious are so different from the matter of which we are made, that some – from Plato onwards – have assumed that they must have some transcendental origin, whether in Plato’s world of the ‘Forms’ or as the gift of God. But once consciousness appears, it confers obvious advantages.
Observe any sentient creature – a squirrel, say – and you see immediately how it differs from an inanimate object. It searches out its food, hides provisions for later consumption, keeps an eye out for predators, learns how to get nuts out of a bird feeder. Consciousness enables it to be proactive with respect to life.
And that same proactive stance gives humankind a distinct advantage – we can plan ahead and make provision for ourselves. But, on the other hand, it brings with it a separation of self and world – we are aware of our vulnerability, of all that threatens us, and of our own mortality. We get caught up in the decision-making, paralysed sometimes by fear of the future or uncertainty about what to do.
If we were permanently asleep, life would be so much easier – our bodies (suitably provided with nutrients and oxygen) would tick over very nicely and efficiently. It is being awake, that gives us all the grief of being sentient in a world that seems far kinder to those without consciousness. Perhaps that’s why we find so many escape routes into oblivion, whether through drugs, obsessions or routines, when the going gets tough.
Is religion outdated?
Is it still quite common for debates on religion to be couched in terms of reason versus superstition, and nothing in the resurgence of militant atheism, especially among scientists who should know better, has managed to get the issue out of that outdated straightjacket and into the 21st century. Views expressed by the reformers in the 16th century, by enlightenment deists in the 18th and by positivists and Marxists in the 19th and 20th, are often rehearsed as if newly coined.
If religious beliefs are taken literally, then there are many good reasons for considering them to be untrue, not least because if they claim certain knowledge of things for which there can be little or no evidence. But religious language attempts to go beyond the literal to express convictions about the value and meaning of life that originate in intuition and experience. And who is to say that is wrong, any more than a poem or novel is wrong, simply because it goes beyond factual description?
The assumption has always been that, once proved factually incorrect (or, following Marx, a distraction from improving life on earth) religion would wither and die. Far from it. The 21st century has seen a resurgence of religion, and particularly of extremist views, serving narrow social and political ends, but couched in religious language and pursued with religious zeal.
This suggests that religious belief, in offering an eternal perspective on human life, and giving it a sense of purpose and direction, fulfils a fundamental human need. If that need does not find satisfaction through traditional religions, it may be sought in commitment to political ideologies (and we saw enough of that in the 20th century), or cultural pursuits, or perhaps simply in loyalty to family and local community.
Particular religions may certainly become outdated; few today worship the gods of ancient Greece or Rome. But the religious impetus remains, and deserves the thoughtful attention of philosophers, if only to ask ‘Why?’
We all know personality when we see it. Within the first months of life, babies start to take on character as they relate to their world, and that process of developing and changing will continue (albeit at a slower pace) throughout life. But how is character formed? And how much of the real ‘you’ is revealed through it?
As we look out upon the world from what we experience as the space between our eyes, we quickly start to map out places of comfort and welcome, and those we would rather avoid – we recognise family and friends and distinguish them from strangers, we have preferences. And that map of values, to which new overlays are added with every new experience, gives us a unique way of seeing our world, informed (consciously or unconsciously) by memory.
To get to know people, we have listen to what they say, watch what they do, and guess what they’re thinking, so that we can start to understand the map they have built up since birth. That is the public character – it is what you are to the rest of the world; it is what becomes your CV, or your Facebook entry, what you are to your friends and colleagues.
But over and above that there are your private thoughts, inaccessible to anyone else. Are these the real you? And if they are, how to you become yourself by giving external expression to them?
We live forwards, our choices shaped by what we hope for and informed by all that we have been and done in the past – we are thus constantly, and inevitably, re-moulding ourselves. How well we succeed in doing that is something only our friends and relatives are likely to tell us!
What were you like before you were born?
With or without a mirror, or a best friend to give us advice, we know what we are like. We are aware of ourselves as thinking, feeling agents. We might also have a good stab at guessing what we will be like if we reach old age, if we have not done so already. But what of beyond that?
Thinking about what we might be like if we could survive death is more problematic: how would we be like anything if we had no body, and thus no brain to think or senses to contact us to the rest of the world? But that may seem too hypothetical a question, because many would argue that any survival of death is a contradiction in terms. But, in order to conceive what such existence or non-existence might be like, think back to the moment before your birth. Who were you then? Could you, in any sense, have been a person?
Try to imagine a world that is absolutely without you, whether before or after your life. That’s not so easy because you automatically imagine yourself looking at it, and thus you still include yourself in that world.
This problem touches on many questions in philosophy – from the fact that we cannot see the world other than from our particular perspective, or that all experience is a matter of interpretation rather than fact, or how intuition and imagination inform reason. Like the Zen question about the sound of one hand clapping, contemplating the world before you were born requires mental effort – getting away from that habitual perspective in which we are the central reference point – and that is always going to be an interesting, valuable but very difficult exercise.
Whereof we cannot speak….
Philosophers tend to think and write too much. They do so, of course, because they deal with reason, and reason finds expression in writing and speaking. Their task is to explain things as clearly and logically as possible, on the assumption that everything can be explained or described in some way. But is that necessarily so?
One of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, opened his famous early book Tractatus with the claim that ‘The world is all that is the case.’ From that point he built up an account of how language reflects reality.
But towards the end of Tractatus, Wittgenstein concluded that, when all possible scientific questions had been answered, the problems of life would remain completely untouched, and that a sense of the world as a whole was not something that language could describe. It was something that simply showed itself, it was mystical.
He recognised too that his philosophy was like a ladder that a person could use to climb up and then discard, its task to show which questions were real and answerable and which were not, so that, in the end, he could say ‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.’ In the end, philosophy is no more than a tool, it can never provide us with the meaning of everything.