Why Philosophy for the Ordinary Person?

I never cared for philosophy because it seemed to make simple ideas complex, via the meta-cognitive, reflexive nature of the arguments, many seeming to stumble on irrelevant issues.

Philosophers investigate many areas of thought, among them existence, epistemology, ethics, politics, mathematics, science, logic, aesthetics, mind/consciousness, and metaphysics. Their purpose is to answer questions about our purpose, and to offer guidelines for a successful life in reaching those ends.

If there is a hierarchy of philosophical thought, I would find existence at the apex, and then everything else below. Like most folk, I am not ready to argue existence. Others simply rely on some version of a god story. I take a rational route and make it an axiom.

An expected characteristic of an examined life is some philosophical stance that informs our acquisition and processing of knowledge. Before we can say we know something, we should be able to answer what is real, what is of mind, what is correct reasoning, what is fallacy, what is trusted evidence, what is truth? Before we can say we live a good life, we should be able to identify our values and the obligations our life bestows on us.

As befits the personal philosophy of a non-philosopher, I am informal and restrictive in my intuitive stab here at defining my stance.  Socrates would smile, in awe of my philosophical feebleness. For instance, questions of existence, which are the root of most philosophical angst, are relegated to the axiomatic level of my thought.

Welcome to Naive Philosophy, my personal philosophical stance.

Axiom 1: Stuff exists. The collection of all such stuff is called reality.
Axiom 2: Stuff changes. Stuff turns into different stuff.
Axiom 3: Stuff has no reason. The ‘why’ of stuff is a story we tell ourselves.
Axiom 4: Stuff is accessible to the sentient mind. We can understand stuff.

Definition: Philosophy is the study of how sentient beings (us) understand these premisses and their semantics (our conceits regarding existence and understanding), and what we should best do with our understandings (tailoring our conceits toward a practical navigation of our reality). Philosophy is thus the study of our conceits and their utility to us.

Definition: Metaphysics is the study of the stories we tell ourselves (e.g. philosophy, religion, mathematics, logic), together with the communication medium (language). Metaphysics is thus the study of our memes.

Our sentience allows us to contemplate and interact with our reality, our physical existence, but I understand such sentience to be part of our physical existence. This seems to complicate the work of actual philosophers, but does not affect the informal level of this discussion.

Truth is a metaphysical concept that has caused a significant amount of philosophical angst over the millennia. I short circuit all this deep stuff simply by relegating truth to metaphysics.

Belief seems to pose undue philosophical hardships, which I avoid with a simple statement: I believe nothing, although I enjoy a good story.

With existence, reflexivity, belief, and truth thus disposed, how hard can philosophy be?

What Use, Metaphysics?

Our awareness of reality and of ourselves is the raw medium, the spirit realm, from which our metaphysics is created. Such human awareness has been the metaphysical medium for millennia. Philosophers still address the three overarching existential questions first posed by Aristotelian metaphysics:

  • What things exist and what does it mean to exist? (ontology; stasis)
  • How does existence accommodate change? (principles; dynamics)
  • Why existence? What’s the point? (purpose, aesthetics, ethics)

The answers to these questions provide an understanding of our dynamic reality and its immutable laws, and further allow us to transcend reality, to embellish it in our imagination.

It is helpful to me, in getting a handle on the nature of metaphysics, to ask what happens to metaphysics if all humans were to go away? If all sentience and its information catalog were to vanish from reality, metaphysics, one’s answers to these questions, would simply vanish also. For it is inside of us and thus outside of any reality without us. Continuing this thought process, if sentience were then to reappear on Earth, metaphysics would reappear as well, some parts predictably, others per the vagaries of sentient imagination. Corresponding to this distinction, I imagine two archetypes for metaphysical entities:

  • intrinsic – immutable cognitive constructions reflective of physical reality, either by direct observation, or by modeling and metaphor
  • extrinsic – mutable, evolutionary memeplexes (thought entities) that evolve across sentient minds (in the sense of thought replication)

Here I use extrinsic and intrinsic to mean something different from usual philosophical semantics. I use intrinsic to mean ‘based in universal reality’ and extrinsic to mean ‘beyond external reality’, in the sense of being derived from the collective human imagination. Thus my sense of the words is not from the typical human perspective (man as the center of the universe), but from a universal view that puts man in a truer proportion.

Intrinsic Metaphysics

Intrinsic metaphysics seeks mainly to answer the first two Aristotlean questions. Natural science, mathematics, and logic are cognitive constructions we create to provide these answers, by inducing hypotheses and deducing laws that are immutable within our reality (or any reality with the same ontology and principles). Such laws lead us to an interpretive visualization of our macro physical world, where perceived reality provides the blueprint for our cognitive construction.

Natural science seeks description and subsequent understanding of reality, creating an informed illusion, but admitting probable perceptual distortion. Because of such distortion, and because our reality is dynamic, natural science is unlikely ever to construct a complete and accurate description of macro reality, a completely faithful illusion. And beyond the macro-scale, quantum-scale reality is neither intuitive nor yet knowable; our rock-solid, millennia-old macro-scale scientific foundations rest on some phantasmagorical Jello.

To further inform our reality illusion, mathematics and logic combine to abstractly model reality via our reasoning and intuition. Since the fundamental laws governing our reality are hypothetically immutable, there is as yet nothing to proscribe a complete construction of either the mathematical model or the logical model that supports it. Mathematics provides models even at quantum scales. Scientists fret that they currently lack the intuition required to interpret the probabilistic Jello magic underlying it all. Feynman, trusting in the power of the mathematical models, advised them to “shut up and calculate!”

Extrinsic Metaphysics

Extrinsic metaphysics seeks to answer the third question above, developing along evolutionary pathways through the medium of our thought. The evolutionary replicable thought entity is Dawkins’ meme. Interdependent memes can be rolled up into a memeplex, a coherent collection of memes. Just as organisms evolve in physical reality, memeplexes evolve in sentient minds via Dawkins’ memetic evolution (originally memic, but later changed to mimic genetic).

One usually associates our sentience with cognitive intelligence, but much of behavior and hence memetic evolution is further influenced by emotional intelligence. Memetic evolution is shaped both cognitively and emotionally. In memetic evolution, variation occurs in response to infidelity during copying from mind to mind. Much of this lack of fidelity stems from different emotional needs of individual minds, which causes ‘slanting’ of meanings. Memetic selection results from differences in ease of transmission (communication+cognition), and in emotional appeal (need).

The laws of evolution are the same in both gene and meme processes. These parallel co-evolution processes are somewhat interdependent (a topic for a later exposition). As with genetics, drift is also a large factor in memetic evolution, which exhibits a spectrum of copying fidelity and selection strength characteristics across various types of memeplex.

Belief systems, art, languages, and morality are examples of extrinsic memeplexes evolving in our collective imagination. They seek to embellish reality in more or less arbitrary ways, in the sense that Question 3 above deals with non-intrinsic qualities of reality. Just as biological evolution is the master designer of life, memetic evolution is the master designer of culture, from language to religion.

Forms of extrinsic metaphysical memeplexes are not predictable, although certain basic forms may have high probability of evolving due to human emotional, perceptual, and cognitive constraints. This again mimics biological evolution, where any chemical environment similar to Earth’s might be expected to produce the same basic living body plans that Earth has produced.

So far, biological and memetic evolutionary designs have localized temporal and spatial impact. Biology as we know it is almost certain to remain local, although we can imagine machines that could carry our genetic code to the far reaches of the universe and then could re-establish our biology in a suitable environment.

We can, however, imagine a universal metaphysics transmitted between sentience clusters around the universe. We have even launched feeble attempts at facilitating this, but as yet, we have received in return nary a memeplex through our antennae. We can even imagine metaphysics transcending our reality itself, being transmitted to other realities. But since we don’t even know what that means, we probably shouldn’t spend too much energy in its contemplation.

Sometimes, a memeplex can become an alternative to reality in the imagination of its hosts, an illusion become delusion that distorts reality to match an uninformed belief. This happens when an extrinsic belief system attempts to answer the first two questions above. For example, most religious belief systems have crossed the cognitive and emotional line from illusion to delusion in the sense above.

Dualism

It may appear that these definitions embrace Cartesian duality of mind and body. Yet there are strong arguments against duality, centering on simplicity (why conjecture two entities when one will suffice?), comprehension (how can one characterize mind as a separable entity?), interaction (what is the mechanism of interaction of mind and body?), and necessity (is not a single entity sufficient for modeling how we think?).

Reason seemingly unable to refute such arguments, it is rational to reject dualism and simply accept that when the body dies, the mind goes with it. This is the Aristotelian view. The gist of memetic evolution is that memes are information artifacts of a mind, which can be exported to other compatible minds. This cannot be accomplished on death, however, as Plato envisioned. So plan ahead (as I am doing) and export early.

There is another kind of duality within the concept of mind: emotion vs reason. The two together form one’s personality. This is again reminiscent of the Aristotelian view of hierarchies of mind. Thoughts and feelings arise from separate brain structures; feelings arise in the more primitive structure. These are not wholly separable, it would seem, because thoughts carry emotional context, capable of revealing the feelings of the person (even without emoticons).

The ratio of inherited memetic thought to original thought (original to the individual, not to all individuals who ever existed) may be a measure of a mind’s capacity for inventiveness. The ratio would be expected to vary substantially between imaginative thinkers and those minds that are controlled by the memes of their inherited culture.

Individuals can preserve both the inherited and uniquely-derived aspects of mind. In prior times, writing was the main recording method for aspects of mind, providing for communication during life and remembrance after death. Modern technology enables us to further capture aspects of mind. Thus, should someone want a remembrance of their personality to survive their demise, they can record some of their life’s interactions. Thought recorded by any means can seed future generations of memetic evolution. Think of recorded thought as a frozen meme bank.

Memeplex Extinctions

Memetic evolution demonstrably experiences extinction events, perhaps when a memeplex offers no emotional appeal or net perceived survival advantage to itself or to its human hosts, in which case human minds no longer bother with it. There are many examples of languages, art, religions, etc. going extinct when the human minds willing to embrace them dwindled to none. To the extent that such memeplexes have been recorded, they may yet arise again from their meme bank.

Academic studies now predict the extinction of religions and all but one language in our future, based on current local trends. Evidence is provided for the coming domination of secular culture in local areas, but global extrapolations are not yet substantiated. Such local predictions are derived by mathematical modeling of current trends.

The predictions are explained principally by the hypothesis that humans perceive survival advantage in joining the largest available social group (perhaps a fundamental law of memetic evolution). Since local is being subsumed by global everywhere on the globe, it is not a reach that some local processes and trends will ultimately achieve global status. We have waited until now to reach such coalescence tipping points because the world only recently became a global community.

It is not much of a cognitive stretch to understand that one language is all that humans need. More than one provides selective disadvantage on the global stage to those who speak only a minority language. Here we speak of course of languages meant for general discourse regarding day-to-day events. Of course, one hopes those specialized languages, of music and mathematics for instance, will endure for all of humanity’s reign.

That no religions will survive is harder to understand, but it appears humans are gradually coming to perceive lessening emotional appeal and no selective advantage from religion in this life, so long as one can reject religion and still keep one’s head. (That has long been religion’s hole card.)

Once a majority tipping point is reached on some scale, for instance where the projected single language or a secular society succeeds sufficiently well to become the majority position in that culture, the perceived advantage for joining that majority feeds itself to the exclusion of all competing memeplexes. Perhaps cultural loyalties may slow down the mass conversion, but over a few generations of global exposure, those loyalities may be expected to become too diffuse to retain binding power. Isolation in minority metaphysical ghettos has sustained minority memeplexes in the past, but modern global communications make such reinforcing isolation increasingly hard to come by.

Several countries in the world now either have achieved, or are trending toward a near term secular majority. But religions, of all memeplexes, seem the least likely to go quietly into that good night. A couple of religions today seem ready to motivate humans to fight each other so that one or the other will exceed the tipping point majority and thus achieve the critical mass necessary for global evolutionary supremacy, for getting evolution on their side, so to speak.

Religious practitioners go on offense to fight for new members by offering a variety of unbeatable deals in the afterlife; immortality still has drawing power. Sensing that evolution has the power to eliminate their conceits forever from world consciousness, some less savvy practitioners adopt defensive ploys, waging war on evolution itself, as if thereby to deny the fate evolution has in store for their conceits. Other practitioners, much more savvy as to the nature of their problem, adopt an offensive stance through use of the sword. Their plan is to kill infidels, so as to guarantee a genetic survival benefit to those who will accept the faith. Rather than setting out to defeat evolution, they shrewdly plan to use it to their purpose (while publicly denying that evolution is real).

In spite of such brilliant ploys, academicians are suggesting, based on trends, increasing globalization, and failed relevance tests, that religions will go the way of the dodo. This possibility seems comforting, for a universal religion would probably come with a severe dose of groupthink, not pretty to contemplate for those of us who value freedom of mind. One wonders however, if the academics might not have overlooked some genetically-based (biological) emotional need by some subset of humans for a faith-based existence.

Perhaps there will be persistent low level religious memeplexes throughout our secular future. Such an outcome will require a selection benefit for such personal philosophy. Emotional well-being and cooperative living might be such derived benefits.

Perhaps there will even arise a cult of the Jello. In our human development to date, all areas of mysticism arising from the unknown have been cast into the realm of deity by those with minds so disposed. But minds so disposed, shunning reason, likely will not be cognizant of our quantum Jello, so I would bet against such a new faith.

Giving up religion does not cast us out of all possible heavens. Our projected secular future offers the warm promise of a memetic afterlife. That is our heritable essence, a rational hope we can believe in.

Destiny Writ Large And Small

We humans control our life destinies through our free will, within the constraints imposed by reality: resources, genetics, culture, and chance.

We may be able to continually adapt to our dynamic reality, both biologically and metaphysically, over the long term. Planning for change, rather than for stasis, seems our best bet for enhancing our flexibility and extending our existence. But reality seems to be locally chaotic (deterministic, but so complex as to be unpredictable), so planning for change is nearly oxymoronic. As long as our local reality (a habitable planet Earth) exists, we can visualize our own existence here also, imagining our destiny having long legs. Unfortunately, our habitat’s ability and increasing tendency to achieve very large changes in very short times will likely depart from this illusion. Our capacity to change ourselves in time to adapt seems a little farther from certainty than we should be comfortable with.

Entropy rules, although the memeplex of our physical laws is not yet completely imagined, so our visualization of endgames is incomplete. It seems unlikely that our biological existence will have staying power, but perhaps we will find some way to propagate our memes to future sentience incarnations.

On Truth

Rationalists restrict use of the word truth to refer to the truth value of a sentence (formula) in the science of logic. Religious folk understand truth as divine enlightenment. Both these senses of truth are certain and thus metaphysical, not of the real world.

Given their basis in non-reality, it seems nonconstructive (reflexive and superfluous) to use the words true and false and their derivatives in any normal language context, when what we correctly want to express is perceptual agreement, consistency, and understanding. Thus T/F tests are meaningless. For example, why ask the bogus question ‘Is X true?’, when what we want to test is simply ‘Is X correct?’, where correct means consistent with what you observe or you were taught. Following this simple rule seems to eliminate a class of semantic paradoxes, in the process making language more precise.

Intrinsic metaphysics deals not in truth, but in the validity of our virtual constructions and models of reality. Such virtualizations, although based in reality, may be fuzzy due to our perceptual constraints. In science, one doesn’t ask if X is true, but rather is X repeatedly demonstrable? In mathematics, one doesn’t ask if X is true, but rather is X provable and/or consistent?

Use of the word truth in contexts of extrinsic metaphysics is even bigger nonsense, inevitably a marker for delusional thought in the sense above. Conflicts between people delusionally clutching conflicting extrinsic ‘truths’ are inevitable, creating serious problems for societies. As Dawkins suggests, such delusions are viruses of the mind.

Delusional certainty further creates problems with human discourse. People who embrace divinely-sourced truth are typically those whose faith involves a personal god. Understanding one’s universal god as speaking to individual humans elevates people to the center of the Universe, the anthropocentric universal order. Discourse between such a person and a rational person inevitably hinges on this anthropocentrism; on many societal issues, agreement can not be reached between people on opposite sides of this divide. Arguing across the truth divide is a formula for frustration, wasted time and energy.

Summary

We exist as part of a dynamic, unpredictable reality that we will never completely understand, but through which we navigate using our intellect, emotion, metaphysical illusion, and constrained free will.

Our physical brain and our mind are inseparable. When we die, there is no disenfranchised soul remaining, outside of others’ memories. On death, all our metaphysical essence is erased, our thoughts and feelings, unless we have recorded them somewhere or otherwise passed them to our survivors.

We know that we exist because we are sentient. We use metaphysics to answer our existential queries, the what, how, and why of existence. If we were all to disappear and take all evidence of sentience with us, god and mathematics would disappear as well. Were sentience to then reappear in this same reality, the same mathematics would invariably be constructed, but god might re-evolve as a woman before going extinct once again. The main metaphysical take-away: god is mutable and temporary; mathematics is not.

In Bulgakov’s novel Master and Margarita, the devil explains to the protagonist (a despairing author who tried to burn his manuscript) that ‘manuscripts don’t burn’ (a truism only if we grant the devil her existence). Mathematician Edward Frenkel alluded to this symbolism in a NYT op-ed  by observing that, even eschewing the supernatural (or perhaps redefining it), mathematics is uniquely the manuscript that cannot be burned. I concur that in this regard, mathematics is unique among all man’s creations.

It seems I must have left something out. But that is yet another defining characteristic of philosophy. It is perhaps unbounded.

Aside: If you are a philosophy teacher/professor, please leave a comment with my grade, in the sense of the highest level of expected competence in which this paper would receive a passing grade: high school, college, graduate level, or professional practice.

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