Philosophy as practiced by philosophers is largely unintelligible to me. This is my ‘making sense of philosophy’ page. As such, it aims at a ludicrous level of simplicity, the only approach that might make sense to me. Any, more perceptive, readers may take this ball and run with it to deeper places.
Every day I try to act the way I imagine a philosopher acts. I challenge my own and others’ interpretations. I am never content to learn about an event without inquiring of the cause. My imagination challenges passive observation, say by considering strange things in a familiar light, or the familiar in a different context. In the act of writing, I inquire of myself why a perceptive reader would want to visit here?
How can one approach such a notoriously ill-defined discipline? If we had to describe the spirit of philosophy in a single word, what would it be? I choose wonder, the main activity of the human imagination. Perhaps the word philosophy itself has some connection to the nature of the beast. Its etymology involves a catenation of two Greek words, meaning love + wisdom. Since we seek out what we love, a philosopher likely searches for wisdom. We may be on the right track here, for that is how Socrates analyzed his own motivation.
What is wisdom and why should we love it? The word has deep roots in Germanic languages, and suggests the collection of knowledge, learning, and experience that human minds amass, usually after attaining adulthood. What is it we want to learn? We learn the pragmatic knowledge that will enable us to do useful things and to make correct decisions in our lives. We learn to understand our motivations, and how we each acquire a sense of meaning in our lives. We learn strategies for living, and develop a sense of values to guide us in our pursuits. We understand the primacy or our instinctual mind and attempt to moderate its affect on us through the workings of our rational mind. Wow, why doesn’t everyone study philosophy?
Before we get too excited, let’s reflect on the opinion of the eminent scientist, Stephen Hawking, who recently declared philosophy dead. Damn. Once again, it appears I may be late to the party. But wait, there’s a small group of guests remaining, and it appears there is still some good stuff to imbibe. Let’s party on.
Besides, what does it even mean that philosophy died? Clearly Prof. Hawking had something quite specific in mind, and chose to cast it in the broadest terms for greatest impact. We must wonder at his meaning and criticize his obscure style of speaking. The search for wisdom goes on always, in every corner of our human universe. And this search is partly a search for meanings, in the sense of how things, events, actions and interpretations affect us and our world.
Likely, the Professor’s meaning exists within the context of natural philosophy, the ultimate knowing of our reality. Early philosophical arguments regarding the nature of things ultimately condensed, from the hot gas of general philosophic inquiry, into the discrete scientific disciplines. If philosophy had always been entirely limited to the precursors of these disciplines, and if these mature disciplines must now be considered as distinct from philosophy, only then perhaps could philosophy be considered dead. But it is not difficult to see there must be more to philosophy than explanations of real phenomena, and that the scientific disciplines will always inform all of philosophy. No divorce is possible.
In this short intro, we have described philosophy in terms of wonder, love, wisdom, meanings, causes, and behaviors of natural phenomena. In this mix, we sense not a hint of foreboding that something dear to us is about to perish. It seems like a good party that still has some legs.
Beyond the pragmatic philosophy whose purpose and methods are hinted at above, there is an abstract, academic path of classification and analysis, creating a meta-layer by which academics can study and discuss that which the rest of us merely practice. Throughout the pages of this blog, we focus on pragmatics, cutting loose all that confusing meta-analysis. This is the single greatest simplification that we can achieve.
In the specific subheadings of this Philosophy heading, I attempt to characterize as best I can the academic avenues of philosophical study. Expect this to be sophomoric in the extreme. But in all other pages here, expect to see my wonderment expressed, and meanings derived that will enlighten my path through life. Such wisdom as there may be here will help to complete my philosophical gestalt, guiding me to a productive and loving life, and helping me to understand the complete context of my existence at this moment in time.
The pragmatic path to philosophy is deeply embedded in human psychology. Again, consulting etymology, psychology means study of the soul, or in a more modern sense, study of mind. The practicum of philosophy, involving learning and knowledge, is inseparable from the workings of mind. We may observe two levels of mind: the rational mind, and the reflexive mind of our distant ancestors. Many of our daily decision points will involve only the latter innate working of mind. The rational mind struggles to keep up and moderate the instinctive mind.
Mind achieves knowledge by studying the what and how of our world. Mind achieves wisdom by positing the why of our world, and the what and how of a better world imagined. Philosophy accumulates wisdom, to provide meanings (what difference will it make) and context (why should we care) for all our decisions. The health of our societies and the health of Spaceship Earth depends on well-informed decisions and the strength of character to carry these decisions forward.
Sometimes philosophy is stretched to encompass theology as well. Religion, a discrete instance of theological thinking, is a type of scripted philosophy, recorded in great good books. A few of the scripted religious tenets are derived from the fabric of universal human morality. But much religious scripting attempts to coerce, via supernatural phenomena and allegory. Thus the bulk of religious scripts are obsoleted in today’s world, of interest only to zealots. Further, zealots’ morality is often a tragicomic distortion of the small truths to be found in their scripts.
The philosophy of this discussion is, of course, areligious, deriving its moral compass not from a divine script, but from human cognition, which reasons and intuits the correct path through life, and recognizes the value of fairness in all of life’s dealings, as eloquently prescribed by the Golden Rule.
However, if we were to consult a great good book for wisdom, it might well be 1 Corinthians 13, which establishes love (charity) as the indispensable virtue that we humans must practice and cherish, lest we fall from that great natural grace with which we have been gifted and for which we give daily thanks:
1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
4 Charity suffereth long, is kind, envieth not, vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not for her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil,
6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the good;
7 Beareth all things, embraceth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
8 Charity never faileth: but wherever there be prophecies, they shall fail; wherever there be tongues, they shall cease; wherever there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
10 But when that which is complete is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things;
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.
13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
My translation of ‘perfect’ to ‘complete’ is yet another attempt to define God. I prefer it, because perfection is overrated. Completeness has a mathematical definition, describing an inclusive wholeness. Of course, this is now a secular and hence metaphysical God whose essence must be discovered by sentient brains.
The problem with a metaphysical God is revealed by the wisdom above: ‘wherever there be knowledge, it shall vanish away’. A vanishing God is disturbing at some level. We worry about such a deficit because we perceive we need the idea of God. But is it a problem? Perhaps not. A vanishing God is exactly what we would expect if our need for God is vanishing.
We can see the need for God gradually vanishing from our sentience. Viewing the earliest philosophical tracts known, they are filled with mysticism regarding ultimate power, to account for inexplicable observations and what motivates the Cosmos. Yet Hawking is correct, That part of natural philosophy has largely vanished, because our knowledge now accounts for it. And we can reasonably expect the need for God will steadily diminish with time.
Our current residual level of needed mysticism addresses the most fundamental aspects of the game called reality; who threw in the game ball and started the game clock? what is the goal of the game? is it a fair game? what happens to all the players at the end?
I also wonder, how will 1 Corinthians 13 need to be amended by the time the game is complete. I think I already know. I chose this passage because I believe that it is less likely to need revision as God vanishes than does any other meaningful passage there.
But there is a larger question I concern myself with: which of mankind’s current philosophies will need least amending at game end. And to this end, the 2500 year old Tao of Laozi seems far ahead on points:
*It posits a metaphysical God.
*It leaves morality to evolution of mind, which must define and embrace virtue for pragmatic reasons.
*It posits a beginning and end of time, the duration of our current cosmos.
*It posits timeless potential energy in a quasi-stable state, both before and after cosmos; this timelessness is the only actual infinity our metaphysics need embrace, others being normalized away.
*It posits a cosmos defined by opposites (abstractly, yin and yang) that continually transform from one pole to the other through expenditure of energy (qi).
*It recognizes the physical law of conservation of qi, and posits adherence to this law as a fundamental tenet of stable existence.
I am heartened to learn that Niels Bohr, former Professor of Philosophy and Nobelist father of quantum mechanics, adopted the symbol of Tao in his family coat of arms. As a great philosopher/scientist of our time, he was a unique authority on scientific knowledge’s remarkable confirmation of Tao.